JAMES FERN WEBSTER

In 1890 the production of Aluminium was revolutionised by an electrolytic process that led to the widespread use of this metal. It brought to an end numerous attempts to use chemical extraction processes. During a relatively short period in the mid-19th century Aluminium was produced in increasing quantities, higher purity, and at reducing costs. Subsequently there has been a debate as to who first produced Aluminium on a commercial scale. There is no straightforward answer. In Arthur Fern Shaw’s biography of James Fern Webster a case is made that Webster was first. This claim is based the premise that the quantity, quality and purity of the Aluminium are key factors in any claim. The following extract from the biography presents the argument for this recognition - a belief Arthur Shaw very strongly held, as illustrated below, until his death in 1961.

Webster’s Aluminium

Webster’s Aluminium - origin and manufacture


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Introduction
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Aluminium

Early Years
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Steel
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To James Fern Webster - a militant Englishman and arch alchemist of the nineteenth century - mankind all over the world is indebted for the discovery of a formula which made possible the production of pure and inexpensive Aluminium. This unchallengeable claim it is now my privilege to place on public record, supported by irrefutable evidence that has never been published in collective form. (ed. sadly Arthur Shaw did not live to see his biography published - how he would have appreciated seeing his words made available to the world with help of the Internet).

Then how is it, you may ask, that many books dealing with the origin and manufacture of Aluminium, authors have erroneously ascribed the honour to savants of French, German and other nationalities? The answer is not far to seek. Here is the explanation. My Grandfather, like most men of genius, was an extremely modest man. He abjured all forms of publicity with unfeigned abhorrence. To the criticisms and laudations of the compeers of his day he was starkly cold and utterly indifferent. Though never sullen, he was a silent and ultra secretive researcher who paid absolutely no heed to world opinion in so far as it concerned his own successes or failures. It was this passion for secrecy that made it impossible for metallurgical experts to obtain authoritative information about many of my Grandfather’s triumphant achievements in the alchemy of Aluminium.

That many other well known scientists from time to time contributed important discoveries which helped to simplify manufacturing processes and to improve the actual product, I fully and frankly acknowledge. But all with one accord failed to produce a PURE Aluminium, or as it was originally designated, an ‘Alumina’ that could be marketed at an economic price. One of the first and most notable pioneers to tackle the Aluminium problem was the French chemist Mons. Henri Sainte-Claire Deville, who in 1854 appears to have made a desperate attempt to ruthlessly reduce manufacturing costs. But even this great academician, despite the fact that he was liberally financed by Napoleon III, only attained a modicum of success. Later Deville’s process was adopted by a leading British manufacturing concern - Bell Bros., of Newcastle upon Tyne. After spending money unstintingly in an effort to make Aluminium at a price that consumers might reasonably be expected to pay, this firm failed to achieve its aim. Their experience proved that the metal was not only impure but also that the raw material could not be satisfactorily rolled.

Records show that from 1854 until June 1881 not a single workable discovery emerged from any source whereby the manufacturing operations of Aluminium might be effectually cheapened. So much for the doing of others. Now let us see what was the outcome of my Grandfather’s investigations. Press reports published in 1881 disclose the fact that James Fern Webster’s patent formula aroused enormous interest amongst leaders in the metal industry. In point of fact, my Grandfather’s patent may be said to have miraculously resuscitated a moribund branch of metal manufacture, as many leading men in the metal world had long since given up all hope of ever producing Aluminium at a price that would be competitive in comparison with the cost of other metals. Commenting on this, the ‘Pall Mall Gazette’, in an issue published during 1881, states that:

“The discovery that Aluminium can be made in hundredweights instead of ounces, and that after its manufacture had been abandoned by the French, give rise to the belief that henceforth the world is likely to draw its supplies from England. By the WEBSTER new process of manufacturing ALUMINA, what would hitherto have occupied six months can now be accomplished in a week.”

Numerous other press reports, as well as patent specifications of technical data still in existence, make it unmistakably clear that the credit for having evolved and presented to the world a practical process for the production of pure Aluminium at a cost sufficiently low to enable manufacturers to use the metal in the making of articles of every conceivable kind, must without qualification be given to its rightful claimant - JAMES FERN WEBSTER.

Moreover, to my Grandfather must be extended the plaudits of all industrialists for his commendable enterprise in having erected in Birmingham, England,

The First Aluminium Factory in the World

for the manufacture of Aluminium and Aluminium Alloys. The factory which involved an outlay of £25,000, was built and equipped in 1877 - four years before the filing of the patent which was destined to rank as an epoch making event in the annals of Aluminium progress. My Grandfather’s idea in thus taking time by the forelock, was to have a complete factory installation available several years in advance, in order that he could utilise the works ostensibly for the manufacture of iron, steel and miscellaneous alloys, while secretly taking advantage of the crucibles, furnaces and machinery for the perfecting of his Aluminium process. Some indication of this is evidenced by a letter dated May the 9th 1879 addressed to a friend wherein he says “give me another two years and I will show the world what I can do with Aluminium”.

Undoubtedly the erection of a factory four years before the historic patent was applied for, was a shrewd act of foresight on the part of the Midlands Mystery Man of Metaldom. For in the interim, many tons of Aluminium were produced and secreted in well guarded warehouses. This store of precious metal was kept in reserve ready for delivery the moment a big demand developed, as my Grandfather knew full well that it would immediately metal workers in every land learned of his new patent process for the production of ‘cheap’ Aluminium of guaranteed purity , suitable for the making of all sorts of commodities ranging from pins to propellers for ships.

Equally to the point is a special report on Aluminium and its alloys made by Carl Von Buch, B.A.,F.C.S.,F.I.C., member of the Society of Chemical Industry, etc., in which he says :

“The attention of the public has lately been drawn to an invention now being worked, for the cheap production of pure Aluminium with the view to the manufacture of the metal Aluminium, of which it is the oxide. The analysis of Webster’s Aluminium shows not the least trace of iron, whereas compared with that of the French manufacture is instructive, as it contains 2.22 of iron. Thus Mr Webster’s Aluminium IS MADE PERFECTLY PURE containing no iron, the least trace of which is fatal to its use for alloy. PROOF OF THE PURITY of the metal is found in the fact that the bronzes produced stand a far greater strain than those officially tested by Strange and Noble. Bars of Webster’s Aluminium Bronze have not broken until a strain of 42-tons per square inch was applied”.

A Standing Joke

Webster was ver proud of his discoveries, but he lived in dread of spies, and it became a standing joke for his friends to greet him in German. Fearing that his secrets would be stolen, he took every precaution to keep strangers away from the factory and carried his secrets about with him. Efforts were, in fact, made by spies to obtain his formula and several times his factory was entered. He died at the age of 84 with his efforts unrecognised”. Birmingham Sunday Mercury, 20 November 1938.