Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Right To Say "Aluminum" Instead of "Aluminium": the Real Reason the Pilgrims Fled England

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, a little bit of American vs British English discussion.

A couple of days ago Kat Day wrote a blog post about the spelling of sulfur/sulphur, which started a conversation that eventually landed on the aluminum/aluminium controversy. I became aware when Stuart Cantrill brought me into the conversation on the basis of a Nature Chemistry thesis that Brett Thornton and I wrote recently on element suffixes. The aluminum/aluminium issue was mentioned in passing, but was one of many tangential anecdotes that were truncated due to limited space. A little web searching by others yielded a couple of articles by Grammarphobia and World Wide Words on the topic. Brett and I (but mostly Brett) did some more research and think there’s more here than the common knowledge. Here are some thoughts and speculation. Consider this a working hypothesis as there are pieces of the puzzle we are still chasing down.

First, the "Latin-sounding" argument is probably the reverse, as we noted in the thesis. Aluminum is too Latin-like, which was the complaint, not the reverse. We are not 100% sure about this as the Quarterly Review was a literary journal, and early 19th century English can be magniloquent. It was however, a literary argument similar to Ampere wanting to rename fluorine phtorine. Either way, Humphry Davy's original nomenclature clearly didn't stick, since everyone used aluminium. Bill Bryson's book The Mother Tongue credits Webster with pushing the aluminum spelling in America. That's plausible since Webster was big on simplifications; however, most of these were routinely ignored. As soon as he died in 1843, his heirs promptly removed many of his "simplified" words from his eponymous dictionary.

The 1870 edition of Webster's dictionary has neither aluminum or aluminium. The 1913 edition has both. We haven't been able to check all the intervening editions, but we believe the 1844 version, the last by Webster himself, has aluminum. If Webster was basing his words on Davy's chemistry texts, which is not an unreasonable assumption, he would have found the word "aluminum", which was promptly expunged after Webster died because no one was using it (just like other Webster spellings such as ‘tung’ for ‘tongue’). So the problem with crediting Webster is that no one paid any attention to aluminum before Webster died. If it wasn't Webster who changed the spelling, who did?

Wikipedia had a juicy, unreferenced tidbit in the entry for Charles Martin Hall of the Hall-Heroult Process fame. They credit Hall for misspelling aluminium on a "handbill publicizing his aluminum refinement process", and subsequently this spelling took off in the US. There is more on this in a book called "Boron Group." It adds that Hall used the -ium suffix on all his patent applications and the supposed handbill was from 1892. Hall's company (now Alcoa) was named the "Pittsburg Reduction Company" in 1888. It was changed to "Aluminum Company of America" in 1907, so clearly aluminum had supplanted aluminium by then. The archives have a lot of referrals to aluminum for the 1880s (before the 1892 handbill), exactly when Al went from curiosity to a practical metal, which is also when the nomenclature might have changed. Our hunch is that this was Hall's doing, perhaps unintentionally, but his 1889 patent says aluminium throughout. Why didn't he use the aluminum spelling that was also in use?

The Washington Monument cap, was cast from Al in 1884 just before Hall's work. The corresponding patent from William Frishmuth for refining Al from 1884 used aluminium just like Hall's patent. This suggests that the accepted spelling in the 1880s was probably aluminium, so it seems pretty conclusive that Webster's use of aluminum in the 1820s didn't stick. 

Of course ACS changed to aluminum in 1925, and IUPAC took the other route in 1990.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.