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ALUMINIUM VERSUS ALUMINUM - Why a difference in spelling

Uploaded by joff on Feb 13, 2007

The metal was named by the English chemist Sir Humphry Davy, even though he was unable to isolate it: that took another two decades’ work by others. He derived the name from the mineral called alumina, which itself had only been named in English by the chemist Joseph Black in 1790. Black took it from the French, who had based it on alum, a white mineral that had been used since ancient times for dyeing and tanning, among other things. Chemically, this is potassium aluminium sulphate (a name which gives me two further opportunities to parade my British spellings of chemical names).

Sir Humphry made a bit of a mess of naming this new element, at first spelling it alumium (this was in 1807) then changing it to aluminum, and finally settling on aluminium in 1812. His classically educated scientific colleagues preferred aluminium right from the start, because it had more of a classical ring, and chimed harmoniously with many other elements whose names ended in –ium, like potassium, sodium, and magnesium, all of which had been named by Davy.

The spelling in –um continued in occasional use in Britain for a while, though that in –ium soon predominated. In the USA—perhaps oddly in view of its later history—the standard spelling was aluminium right from the start. This is the only form given in Noah Webster’s Dictionary of 1828, and seems to have been standard among US chemists throughout most of the nineteenth century; it was the preferred version in The Century Dictionary of 1889 and is the only spelling given in the Webster Unabridged Dictionary of 1913. However, there is evidence that the spelling without the final i was used in various trades and professions in the US from the 1830s onwards and that by the 1870s it had become the more common one in American writing generally.

Actually, neither version was often encountered early on: up to about 1855 it had only ever been made in pinhead quantities because it was so hard to extract from its ores; a new French process that involved liquid sodium improved on that to the extent that Emperor Napoleon III had some aluminium cutlery made for state banquets, but it still cost much more than gold. When the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus in London was cast from aluminium in 1893 it was still an exotic and expensive choice. This changed only when a...

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Uploaded by:   joff

Date:   02/13/2007

Category:   Physics

Length:   2 pages (495 words)

Views:   2188

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