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TITLE: Aluminum or Gold?

Which is more valuable? It depends.

Abundant and versatile, aluminum is now cheap and widely available. But early in the 19th century, the French Emperor Napoleon III served

[Photo Montage: (Background) Line drawing of man placing aluminum cap on top of Washington Monument.  (Foreground) Photo of aluminum cap.]

When the Washington Monument was dedicated in 1885, it was topped with an aluminum cap. At that time, aluminum’s price rivaled silver’s.
food to his most distinguished guests on aluminum plates. Why was aluminum—the most abundant metal in Earth’s crust—once so precious? For many years after its discovery in 1825, aluminum was extremely difficult to remove from rocks. In 1886, when an inexpensive method of extraction was developed, aluminum suddenly became cheap and widely available.

[Photo: Aluminum cube]

Glittering and durable, gold has historically been a symbol of wealth and power. Yet today, gold is a workhorse metal for high technology. Why is gold so valuable? Gold is scarce. Throughout all of history,

[Photo: Gold mask of Inti]

Sun rays flare out from this famous gold mask of Inti, the sun god of the Incas.
only about 116,000 metric tons have been found—enough to make a cube about 18 m (59 ft) on a side. Gold is beautiful. Ancient cultures equated its brilliance with the Sun’s, and we still prize its glow in jewelry and ornaments. Gold has properties valuable to industry, such as excellent electrical conductivity and corrosion resistance.

[Photo: Gold]

Video Transcript

Casey (speaking to camera): “You won’t believe today. Ms. Everly found out I hadn’t started on my science project yet so she gave me a topic. Get this: ‘Which is more valuable gold or aluminum?’ Really, I mean, it’s like jewelry versus soda cans.”

Computer speaking: “Hello, Casey.”

Casey (speaking to camera): “This is gonna be so simple. But I guess I better do a little work. (speaking to computer) Let’s go.”

Computer: “Where to, Casey?”

Casey (speaking to computer): “Tell me about gold.”

Computer: “Yes, gold.”

Casey: “Hey, neat. How about ‘gold in history.’”

Narration on computer: “Gold: treasured since the beginning of recorded history for its beauty and permanence. In civilizations around the world gold has been an enduring symbol of wealth and power, important as currency, indispensable in ceremony and myth. The love of gold is one of the oldest of human passions and it is still honored above all metals.”

Casey: “See, I told you. A no-brainer. Obviously gold is more valuable.”

Computer: “Not so fast, Casey. A little more history: The Great Gold Rush, California in 1849.”

Dialog between to characters set in 1849:

Character #1: “Hey, Haynes, ya seen any gold yet?”
Character #2: “I seen a lot of rock.”
Character #1: “Ya know, I’ve heard stories ’bout a metal that’s twice as valuable as gold.”
Character #2: “Ya don’t say?”
Character #1: “It’s called “a-lu-min-eeum.” Now if I could find me a streak of that pure, I’d be rich in one flap of a jack.”

Casey: “Aluminum more valuable than gold? You’ve got to be kidding.”

Computer: “No, it’s true. The price of aluminum was more than double the price of gold for much of the 19th century.”

Casey: “Well why? Wasn’t there much of it around?”

Narration on computer: “Actually, aluminum is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust. But unlike gold, which is found chemically pure, aluminum is found always tightly bonded to oxygen. It wasn’t even isolated as a metal until 1825. Back then, nobody knew an inexpensive way to extract it from rocks. What little aluminum there was, was made into elegant jewelry, novelties for royalty and in 1884, even the tip-top of the Washington Monument. But some people, like the English novelist, Charles Dickens, could foresee the aluminum we know today: (in Dickens’ voice) ‘What do you think of metal that’s white as silver, unalterable as gold, as easily melted as copper, as tough as iron, malleable, tactile and lighter as glass? Its future place in all sorts of industrial applications is undoubted.’”

Casey: “Sure, aluminum’s everywhere today. Wait, go back. What happened?”

Computer: “Rewinding to 1886. A young man in Ohio named Charles Morton Hall was working with his sister, Julia, in a little make-shift laboratory next to the kitchen. He discovered how to use electricity to separate metallic aluminum from it’s ore.”

Casey: “Way to go guy!”

Computer: “In France, Paul Herreau had also found the same answer. By 1893 the new ‘Paul Herreau Process’ had lowered the price of aluminum to 65 cents a pound.”

Casey: “So now aluminum was cheap and gold was still valuable. Way more valuable.”

Computer: “Wait Casey. Since when does valuable just mean high price? It’s true that aluminum became less rare and less expensive. But it also became so useful that the last 100 years have been called ‘The Aluminum Age.’”

Narration on computer: “Aluminum continues to remake the modern world. We can see it everywhere; in architecture, transportation, electrical cables, communications and consumer products. Because it’s light-weight, strong, versatile and easy to recycle, aluminum is becoming more and more valuable in our daily lives.”

Casey: “So is that it then? Useful aluminum wins over beautiful gold”

Computer: “Hold on Casey.”

Narration on computer: “Today, gold is much more than just a pretty face. Its beauty and rarity keep the price of gold high, but its real value may lie in its unique properties for advanced technologies. Gold is one of the best electrical conductors and it never corrodes. Billions of circuits in millions of computers depend on microscopic amounts of gold.”

Casey: “So without gold, you wouldn’t be so smart?”

Computer: “Umm, in all honesty, no.”

Narration on computer: “One ounce of gold can be drawn into a wire 50 miles long. Gold reflects intense heat, even in a layer so thin you can see through it.”

Casey: “Is there still a lot of gold out there?”

Narration on computer: “Oh yes. The easy gold has been found. But with today’s improved technology we’re able to extract gold from much lower grade ore. It’s refined, melted and poured into molds, resulting in bars of high purity. High-tech manufacturers rely on gold to do some of the most demanding jobs in the modern world. We are still living in a ’Golden Age.’”

Casey: “Hey, I thought this was the ‘Aluminum Age.’”

Computer: “That too Casey. The world isn’t simple, but it sure is interesting.”

Casey: “Ok, I get it. We’d have a hard time living without either one: aluminum or gold. I can’t choose. What do you think? Well, if you could think.”

Computer: “It’s your science project, not mine. Where to, Casey?”

Casey: “Ok, let’s write.”

Computer: “Yes, write.”

Casey: “This is called ‘Science Report. What’s it Worth’ by Casey Russell. What makes a metal valuable? Is it because it’s rare or because it’s beautiful or useful?”

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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Department of Mineral Sciences website Credits