Aluminum or Aluminium?

Sir Humphry Davy

Sir Humphry Davy

The name aluminium derives from its status as a base of alum. It is borrowed from Old French; its ultimate source, alumen, in turn is a Latin word that literally means “bitter salt”.

The earliest citation given in the Oxford English Dictionary for any word used as a name for this element is alumium, which British chemist and inventor Humphry Davy employed in 1808 for the metal he was trying to isolate electrolytically from the mineral alumina. The citation is from the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: “Had I been so fortunate as to have obtained more certain evidences on this subject, and to have procured the metallic substances I was in search of, I should have proposed for them the names of silicium, alumium, zirconium, and glucium.”

Davy settled on aluminum by the time he published his 1812 book Chemical Philosophy: “This substance appears to contain a peculiar metal, but as yet Aluminum has not been obtained in a perfectly free state, though alloys of it with other metalline substances have been procured sufficiently distinct to indicate the probable nature of alumina.” But the same year, an anonymous contributor to the Quarterly Review, a British political-literary journal, in a review of Davy’s book, objected to aluminum and proposed the name aluminium, “for so we shall take the liberty of writing the word, in preference to aluminum, which has a less classical sound.”

AluminiumThe -ium suffix conformed to the precedent set in other newly discovered elements of the time: potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, and strontium (all of which Davy isolated himself). Nevertheless, -um spellings for elements were not unknown at the time, as for example platinum, known to Europeans since the 16th century, molybdenum, discovered in 1778, and tantalum, discovered in 1802. The -um suffix is consistent with the universal spelling alumina for the oxide (as opposed to aluminia), as lanthana is the oxide of lanthanum, and magnesia, ceria, and thoria are the oxides of magnesium, cerium, and thorium respectively.

The spelling used throughout the 19th century by most U.S. chemists was aluminium, but common usage is less clear. The aluminum spelling is used in the Webster’s Dictionary of 1828. In his advertising handbill for his new electrolytic method of producing the metal 1892, Charles Martin Hall used the -um spelling, despite his constant use of the -ium spelling in all the patents he filed between 1886 and 1903. It has consequently been suggested that the spelling reflects an easier to pronounce word with one fewer syllable, or that the spelling on the flier was a mistake. Hall’s domination of production of the metal ensured that the spelling aluminum became the standard in North America. Via Aluminium

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