The purification of aluminium was such a laborious task in the mid-19th century that it was considered more desirable than gold or silver. The value of 450 g of aluminium in 1855 was approximately A$10 000.
At these prices, it was only accessible to the aristocracy. Napoleon III of France put this unique metal to work for royal tableware, sculptural castings, jewellery, medallions and even a baby rattle for his son.
In its element
Aluminium’s light weight and unusual appearance ensured that it was avidly sought. The metal’s properties lent themselves to design and simple fabrication. Its malleability approached that of gold.
It could be cold-rolled or cast and, like gold, the metal resisted conventional corrosion. It also took a high polish.
In the late 19th century, French and US scientists independently developed an electrolytic process to reduce alumina to pure elemental aluminium.
With aluminium’s elemental nature now understood, new industrial processes patented in Europe as well as North America assured its extraction from bauxite, a plentiful ore. There was to be no monopoly in the production of the metal.
Coincidentally, these innovations in extraction, refinement and production paralleled advances in aviation. Aluminium’s lightness and extraordinary strength led to its use in early flying machines.
The Wright brothers created an aluminium engine block to power one of their flying machines, while the Germans put aluminium and aluminium’s sister element, magnesium, to work in aircraft used in the First World War.
Early attempts at an Australian industry
It was to take another war to introduce aluminium production to Australia. Although Australia had bauxite ore in abundance, the nation’s coal-fired power plants lacked the capacity to produce enough electricity to recover the element in commercial quantities. Only Tasmania, with its hydroelectric generators, had the necessary power.
In the 1930s, according to Geoffrey Blainey’s history of Alcoa in Australia, a consortium including the Canadian Alcan and two other firms planned to build an aluminium smelter outside Hobart.
By 1938, a smelting company had been formed but the Second World War halted the project. The consortium intended to not only smelt but also fabricate aluminium.
A horizontal hydraulic press that was ordered from Britain to produce extruded rods, bars and sections never arrived, due to the outbreak of war.
In the period between the two world wars, Australian designers (and consumers) would have encountered aluminium objects largely as finished imported items from Britain, the United States and Canada.
The US company Alcoa designed, produced and marketed a wide range of aluminium outdoor furniture and seating during the 1920s and 1930s.
There were few opportunities for Australian industrial designers to use aluminium. By 1914 aluminium products were die-cast in Australia on a small scale and the company Metal Manufacturers made aluminium conductors in Australia in 1922.
Production of the first wrought products was carried out some eight years later by Austral Bronze.
Australian production gets rolling
Despite the efforts of the commonwealth government, Australia was unable to establish an aluminium smelting industry for wartime production. During the Second World War, Australia relied exclusively on imported aluminium ingots from Canada to supply the Department of Aircraft Production (DAP) and other wartime industries.
Rolling mills, however, were established in the Sydney suburbs of Granville (Australian Aluminium Company) and Concord (G.E. Crane and Sons) and Wangaratta. These rolling mills gave Australian designers and manufacturers their first industrial-scale experience of working with aluminium.
The Australian Aluminium Company was the first manufacturer to receive one of the strategically valuable hydraulic presses for producing aluminium bars, sections and rods.
For most of the Second World War, metal production was directed toward the war effort, but towards the end of the war alternative uses for the significant aluminium stockpile were sought.
Plans for the design and production of aluminium prefabricated housing by the DAP’s Beaufort bomber factory at Fisherman’s Bend in Melbourne were finalised in 1945. The pre-fab housing design shifted to steel construction in 1946 and a few steel units were produced.
Wartime metal spinners were fully conversant with aluminium’s ductility and they put their abilities to work, producing containers and cooking pans.
In the post-war period, Stronglite, for example, produced an impressive range of highly polished bakelite-handled cooking pans, kitchen implements and canisters. The noted designer Gordon Andrews designed a set of saucepans for Rex Aluminium that was in production from 1947 to 1949.
The aluminium boom
After the bitter experience of importing strategic aluminium during wartime, the commonwealth was determined to establish a post-war aluminium industry. Bell Bay, outside Launceston, was the site of the first smelter.
Although there were bauxite deposits in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and Queensland, the first ingots of aluminium produced in 1955 at Bell Bay relied on imported Malaysian ore.
By the 1960s, however, a number of companies were at work processing Australian bauxite for aluminium: Comalco at Bell’s Bay and at Weipa in Queensland; and Alcoa at Kwinana in Western Australia and Point Henry in Victoria.
Fortunately for Australian industrial design, Alcoa had a history of aluminium design fabrication as well as smelting, and a fabrication plant was built adjacent to the Geelong smelter.
This Alcoa plant provided opportunities for rolling, the design of extrusions, foils and metal castings.
Putting aluminium to work
Since the 1960s, Australian manufacturing of aluminium has provided many domestic opportunities, including the production of aluminium building components for railway passenger cars (Chullora Railroad Workshops in Sydney), building components (Stegbar and Wintec, amongst others), sheet aluminium for construction (for example, the cladding of Melbourne’s Myer Music Bowl), boat-building (ASB and Trailcraft, for instance) and feed stock for the production of aluminium cans and wire.
Australia’s aluminium industry is now considered mature, and Australia ranks among the top five producers in the world. Despite Australia’s smelting capacity, however, the export of finished aluminium goods (seven per cent in June 2005) languishes well below the export of unwrought aluminium (eighty-four per cent in June 2005).
This will continue to limit industrial design opportunities for high-volume wrought aluminium products.