This long ‘On His Majesty’s Service’ cover was sent from the Department of Mines/ Sydney 14/ 5/ 1918 to Prof. Jos. W. Richards, Lehigh University, South Bethlehem, PA., U.S.A. The grey 2d ‘Roo on Map of Australia’ and the green ½d KGV head stamps, both perfined OS, were cancelled with a roller cancel SYDNEY/ MY 14/ 1918/ N.S.W with the slogan ‘HELP TO WIN THE WAR/ BUY WAR SAVINGS CERTIFICATES/ ELIGIBLES ENLIST’. The reverse was not seen (Figure 1).

In 1891 a noted metallurgist gave a lecture before the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, calling his presentation “The Aluminium Problem.” Referring to “this new metal,” he identified the problem as falling into two parts: the isolation of aluminum, and the productionof aluminum cheaply. [N.B. The American spelling,”aluminum,” which was based on an old English form, will be used except where a quotation calls for the current British for “aluminium.”]

At the time he was speaking, the problem of the production of this metal had been worked on for a hundred years or more, and quantities of it were being extracted from its ore, but not at a price that could be considered cheap. For example, an exhibition of jewelry at the Cooper-Hewett Museum in New York a few years ago featured among its displays an elaborate Victorian jewelry set: necklace, bracelet, pins, earrings—the works. This set was made of two valuable metals: gold and aluminum. Yet a mere twenty years later the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica could say in its article on the metal that “the uses of aluminium are too numerous to mention,” one of those being the very mundane one of cookware.

The man who spoke to the Franklin Institute in 1891, Prof. Joseph W. Richards, instructor in metallurgy, mineralogy and blow-piping at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., had a lot to do with the transformation of this metal from an exotic luxury to an everyday necessity. Richards came by the English spelling “aluminium” honestly, having been born in Oldbury, Worcestershire, England in 1864. His father, also Joseph, was an engineer and builder who came to Philadelphia, when his son was seven years old, to work in metallurgy. Joseph Jr. was educated in the public schools of Philadelphia, graduating from Central High School in 1882 as first in his class. He then enrolled in the less-than-twenty-year-old Lehigh University, where he studied chemistry. His senior thesis was entitled simply “Aluminium.” After graduation Richards spent a year working in industry, but was then brought back to Lehigh to join the faculty. He earned an M.S. degree from Lehigh in 1891, and in 1893 became the first person at the institution to earn the Ph.D., for a dissertation not on aluminum, but copper. With the exception of the 1897–1898 academic year, which he spent as a student at Heidelberg and Freiburg, Germany, Richards taught continuously at Lehigh until his death in 1921.

Richards’ first significant publication was his Aluminium: Its History, Occurrences, Properties, Metallurgy and Applications, including Alloys, published jointly in Philadelphia and London in 1887. One copy in Special Collections is inscribed to William H. Chandler, professor of chemistry at Lehigh and later head of its library. The work was reissued in1890 and 1896, each time with extensive revisions. Other publications by Richards include Metallurgical, which was published in Italian in1909 as Calcoli Metallurgici, and in German in 1913 as Metallurgische Berechnungen. It also appeared in a number of American editions. Two articles of many by Richards are especially important: The Engineering Uses of Aluminum (1915), and The Electometallurgical Revolution in the Iron and Steel Industry of Norway and Sweden (1911). Thus it was that Lehigh University, an institution in the heart of iron and steel- making country in the United States, and closely tied to that industry, harbored in its midst the scholar of a metal that has contributed not insignificantly to the economic decline of iron and steel. The article included a picture of an early electrical device for producing aluminum from the mined Bauxite (Figure 2).

This fine paper was abstracted from a paper at the Lehigh University website, which showed no author.

Categories: Professors