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Pan-American Exposition of 1901

Electrochemical Companies at Niagara1

A number of the major electrochemical companies in operation at the time of the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. While each of these companies produced different chemicals and alloys, they all located their operations along the Niagara River so that they could capitalize on access to a single resource—the abundant and inexpensive electricity produced by the Falls.



The map 2 below shows the major tenants of the Niagara Falls Power Company. The Niagara Falls Power Company power houses are approximately one mile upriver of the actual falls.

Map - Tenants of the Niagara Falls Power Company
Thumbnail images - Charles M. Hall

Charles M. Hall. Photo credit: n/a. Source: "Pioneers of Electrochemistry -- I. Charles M. Hall." Electrochemical Industry, v.1 (1901/02) p.10.

The Pittsburgh Reduction Company (Aluminum Company of America / ALCOA)

Charles M. Hall, an inventor of the electrolytic process used to recover aluminum, and metallurgist Alfred E. Hunt formed the Pittsburgh Reduction Company in 1888. This was the first electrochemical company to contract with the Niagara Falls Power Company. The Niagara plant was located approximately 1/4 mile up river from the power station and operation began in August 1895. In November 1896, a second plant began production below the falls, using power produced by the Niagara Falls Hydroelectric Power and Manufacturing Company.

The influence of Hall's process and Niagara's cheap power is evidenced by the sharp drop in the price of aluminum, which in 1887 sold for $8.00 per pound. "When [the Pittsburgh Reduction Company] began production, the price of a pound of aluminum fell to $2.00; shortly after its 1895 move to Niagara Falls, the price dropped to 75 cents and then 30 cents." 3


The Carborundum Company

Edward G. Acheson heated clay and carbon in an iron bowl by passing a current between it and an arc light carbon. He found a few hard, sharp crystals which he discovered to be silicon carbide. Acheson recognized their potential as an abrasive and merged "carbon" and "Corundum" to form the trade name Carborundum for his new product. He obtained a patent on his new material in 1893.

The Carborundum Company was the second company to contract with the Niagara Falls Power Co. Production began on a four-acre plot of land on the upper river about ½ mile from the power plant.

Edward G. Acheson

Edward G. Acheson

Thumbnail images - The Carborundum Company

The Carborundum Company. Photo credit: n/a. Source: The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook; Being a Guide for Visitors From Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, Mo., September, 1904. Niagara Falls, N. Y. : Pub. under the auspices of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1904. p. 90.



International Acheson Graphite Company

Thumbnail image - Acheson Graphite

The International Acheson Graphite Company. Photo credit: n/a. Source: Joseph W. Richards. "Niagara as an Electrochemical Centre." Electrochemical Industry, v.1, no. 1 (Sept. 1902) p. 52.

In addition to developing carborundum, Edward G. Acheson recognized that at high temperatures, graphite was formed by the decomposition of metallic carbides, specifically, the silicon carbide used in carborundum production. Graphite was an important compound at this time, and was used in the loop filaments for incandescent lamps. The Acheson Graphite Company, which graphitized calcine carbon and anthracite coal, was constructed near the Carborundum plant. It would eventually become part of Union Carbide.



Acker Processing Company

C. E. and A. E. Acker developed a process to electrolyze molten sodium chloride to produce caustic soda and chlorine. The chlorine gas was absorbed by lime and used to produce bleaching powder. The Acker plant was located on the edge of the gorge, on the Niagara River below the Falls. Like the second Pittsburgh Reduction Company plant, Acker received direct current from the Niagara Falls Hydroelectric Power and Manufacturing Company, which was located only 1500 feet away.

Furnaces of the Acker Processing Company. Photo credit: n/a. Source: The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook; Being a Guide for Visitors From Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, Mo., September, 1904. Niagara Falls, N. Y. : Pub. under the auspices of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1904. p. 64.

Acker Processing Company. Photo credit: n/a. Source: The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook; Being a Guide for Visitors From Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, Mo., September, 1904. Niagara Falls, N. Y. : Pub. under the auspices of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1904



Castner Electrolytic Alkali Company

Thumbnail image - Castner Electrolytic Alkali Company

Castner Electrolytic Alkali Company. Photo credit: n/a. Source: The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook; Being a Guide for Visitors From Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, Mo., September, 1904. Niagara Falls, N. Y. : Pub. under the auspices of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1904. p. 116.

This was a branch of Mathieson Alkali Works, Inc. of Providence, RI, which operated a circuit of Castner rocking mercury cells as a pilot plant producing caustic soda and bleaching power for a year starting in 1895 at their alkali plant in Saltville, VA. The Niagara plant was built just up river from the upper aluminum works on land acquired from the Power Company. Charles Vaughn arranged to graphitize carbon anodes in a Carborundum furnace in accordance with a Castner patent. The first cell room started operating in 1897 with 540 cells at 600 amperes, using rock salt from the Retsof mine. The plant was enlarged in 1901 with 2 more cell rooms. The chlorine was absorbed in lime to make bleaching powder.


Niagara Electrochemical Company

Thumbnail images - Niagara Electrochemical Company

Niagara Electrochemical Company. Photo credit: n/a. Source: The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook; Being a Guide for Visitors From Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, Mo., September, 1904. Niagara Falls, N. Y. : Pub. under the auspices of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1904. p. 99.

This company was formed to work the processes of H. Y. Castner for producing sodium, sodium peroxide, and sodium cyanide. The company was formed by the Roessler and Hasslacher Chemical Co. of NJ, the Aluminum Co. of Oldbury, England, and the Scheide Anstalt Co. Metallic Sodium was produced by electrolyzing molten caustic soda just above its melting point. Four rows of 30 pots operated at 1,200 amperes and 5 volts per pot, producing 6,250 pounds of sodium per day and using 1,000 hp. The plant adjoined the Castner Electrolytic Alkali Plant so that it was easy to roll drums of solid caustic soda from one plant to the other.


Norton Emery Wheel Company

Thumbnail images - Norton Emery Wheel Company

Norton Emery Wheel Company. Photo credit: n/a. Source: The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook; Being a Guide for Visitors From Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, Mo., September, 1904. Niagara Falls, N. Y. : Pub. under the auspices of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1904. p. 127.

Norton Emery was the old established firm from Worcester, MA that bought the Charles B. Jacobs patent for fusing bauxite in an electric furnace and allowing it to cool slowly whereby it acquired the hardness of corundum and the toughness of emery, making it suitable for abrasive wheels, stones, cloths and papers. The plant was situated about a mile above the upper power house and was in the charge of A. C. Higgins and S. F. Hall. Bauxite was first calcined to remove moisture and then fed into a vertical electric furnace. A batch was melted electrically, then cooled and left to cool further. Several furnaces consumed 500 hp. After cooling, the block was broken to convenient sizes, roughly graded and shipped to Worcester for further processing.


Acetylene Light and Power Company (Union Carbide Company)

Calcium carbide was first produced by T. L. Willson and J. T. Moorehead at the Willson Aluminum works in North Carolina in 1891. Willson attempted to reduce lime with carbon to make calcium, with which he expected to be able to reduce alumina to aluminum. The electrothermic reaction produced a melt which was then cooled with water. In the process, Willson discovered the reaction in which a flammable gas was evolved—acetylene, which would come to be promoted as an illuminating gas. (There was a separate Acetylene Building, exhibiting the uses of this gas at the Pan-American Exposition.) The Niagara Falls plant was built on Niagara Falls Power Company land and used 5,000 hp. at 2,250 volts. By 1906, 20 tons per day were being produced in 10 rotary furnaces using 500 hp. each.

Thumbnail images - Union Carbide Company

Acetylene Light and Power Company (Union Carbide Company). Photo credit: n/a. Source: The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook; Being a Guide for Visitors From Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, Mo., September, 1904. Niagara Falls, N. Y. : Pub. under the auspices of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1904. p. 95.

T. L. Wilson

T. L. Wilson



Roberts Chemical Company

Roberts Chemical Company

Roberts Chemical Company 4

Isiah L. Roberts' diaphragm cells for alkali-chlorine, were used by the Roberts Chemical Company, which built a plant nearly 2 miles upriver from the Niagara Falls Power Company. Caustic potash and bleaching powder were produced in a one-story frame building using 500 hp. The Roberts Chemical Company became Niagara Alkali, then finally part of Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Company.



Oldbury Electrochemical Company

The plant of the American branch of the English Company, Albright and Wilson of Oldbury, was located at the upper end of Power Company land. It used 1,000 hp. to make 1,000 pounds of electric furnace yellow phosphorus and 1,000 pounds of potassium chlorate per day. Sodium chlorate and perchlorate were soon added. Phosphorus was produced in six electric furnaces of 50 hp. each using phosphate ore mixed with carbon and sand. Phosphorus distilled from the furnace was condensed under water. A calcium silicate slag was tapped out periodically. While platinum anodes were used originally in the chlorate cells, graphite anodes were adapted soon after they became available. This company would also become part of the Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Company.

Oldbury Chemical Company

Oldbury Electrochemical Company. 5


These are but a few of the companies that were located in the vicinity of Niagara Falls in its early days as a center of electrochemical production. Others include the Electrical Lead Reduction Company, the United Barium Company, the Ampere Electrochemical Company, etc. For more information on these companies and their operations in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, see the references listed below. For more information on the history of electrochemisty visit the website of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, http://www.chemheritage.org


References

  1. Unless otherwise noted, the information on the electrochemical companies listed was compiled from two sources: a) William C. Gardiner. "Pioneers on the Niagara Frontier in Power and Chemistry." In Proceedings of the Symposium on Selected Topics in the History of Electrochemistry, (Proceedings Volume 78-6). Eds. George Dupernell and J. H. Westbrook. Princeton, N.J. : The Electrochemical Society, Inc., 1978. pp. 413-432. b) Joseph W. Richards. "Niagara as an Electrochemical Centre." Electrochemical Industry, vol. 1, no.1 (Sept. 1902) pp. 11-39; vol. 1, no. 2 (Oct. 1902) pp. 49-55.
  2. Map shown was modified by the curator, from the original which appeared in The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook; Being a Guide for Visitors From Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, Mo., September, 1904. Niagara Falls, N. Y. : Pub. under the auspices of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1904.
  3. Mary Ellen Bowden with the assistance of Daniel Flaumenhaft. Chemistry is Electric! Philadelphia: Chemical Heritage Foundation, 1997. pp. 16-17.
  4. Image of the Roberts Chemical Company. Photo credit - unknown. In Richards, "Niagara as an Electrochemical Centre," p. 19.
  5. Image of the Oldbury Chemical Company. Photo credit - unknown. In Richards, "Niagara as an Electrochemical Centre," p. 17.