Why does the Washington Monument have an aluminum capstone?
When the Washington Monument was completed on December 6th, 1885, it was celebrated with the placing of a 1000 ounce aluminum capstone to be used as a lighting rod. The apex stone commemorated the builders and designers of the monument and was considered the greatest wonder of the building. What!? A large hunk of aluminum more wondrous than the Washington Monument itself? Today we make cans out of aluminum and when used we throw it away or turn it in to recycling for a nickel, whats the big deal?
Aluminum is a very common metal, one of the most common metals in the earths crust. However in ancient times up the the late 1800’s aluminum was considered a rare and valuable metal. While it was common, it could not be smelted from ore using heat, such as with gold, silver, copper, tin, lead, or iron. Thus production of aluminum was difficult and depended mainly on finding aluminum nuggets or pure veins.
Because of its rarity, it was treated the same as gold and silver. Ancient peoples made jewelry and ornaments from it. The French government in the 1800’s actually had a repository of aluminum bars along with its crown jewels, and gold or silver bars. Emperor Napoleon III prided himself on owning a complete set of aluminum cutlery. The wealthy American industrialist Henry Frick had his house elaborately decorated with aluminum.
When the capstone was placed on the Washington Monument, it was the largest and most valuable piece of aluminum in the world and in all previous history. Then two years later, the value of aluminum crashed. In 1886 various scientists and entrepreneurs discovered new methods of extracting aluminum from ore using chemical and electrical methods. Overnight the production of aluminum skyrocketed and price plummeted. In 1886 production of aluminum amounted to a few ounces a day, by 1888 an individual mine could produce at least 50 ounces a day. By the turn of the century a mine could produce that much in an hour. The price of aluminum crashed to the point the industrialists started using it to make disposable cans to hold their products. Today a can has about 5-10 cents worth of aluminum, 150 years ago your aluminum can would have made you a very wealthy person.