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Julia Hall, Woman Inventor?

Summer 1998 | Volume 14 |  Issue 1

OBERLIN, OHIO: Anyone who writes about women inventors must eventually face a stubborn truth: Most of the important things in history were invented by men. Most does not mean all, of course, and several large books have recently been published to catalogue the technological contributions of women. Yet if you listed the 100 most important inventions of all time and the key figures usually associated with each, no more than a small handful would be female.

Some historians overcome this problem by revealing women’s contributions to inventions usually credited to men. For example, a long-standing (if shaky) tradition calls Catherine Greene of Georgia the true inventor of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. Ada Byron Lovelace, who wrote a description of Charles Babbage’s “analytical engine” in 1843, is often called the world’s first computer programmer (although since Babbage’s machine was never built, she never had to wrestle with debugging). Recently some historians have asserted that Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Einstein-Marie, should share the credit for his work in special relativity. And then there’s Julia Hall, supposed co-inventor of the modern method for refining aluminum.

In that method, called the Hall-Héroult process, an electric current is passed through a red-hot solution of aluminum oxide dissolved in molten cryolite, yielding lumps of pure metal. Julia’s younger brother Charles is credited with its discovery in 1886. Charles had begun searching for a way to extract pure aluminum as a student at Oberlin College (which Julia had also attended, taking most of the same science courses). After his graduation in 1885 he converted the family’s woodshed into a laboratory and continued experimenting until he produced his first sizable sample of aluminum the following February. (See “Silver From Clay,” Invention & Technology , Spring 1986.) For most of a century Charles was generally portrayed as a heroic lone inventor, patiently overcoming failure after failure on his way to eventual triumph. Then a 1979 paper by Martha Moore Trescott asserted that Charles had a collaborator—his sister Julia.

In her paper Trescott called for recognition of Julia’s role as “adviser and confessor,” visiting Charles’s laboratory almost daily and corresponding with him often. Besides offering technical suggestions, Trescott says, Julia “managed many aspects of the invention process” for her unworldly brother. She kept careful records and gave testimony that proved essential in a patent dispute with Paul Héroult, a French inventor who devised a nearly identical method almost simultaneously. According to Trescott, she also secured financing to commercialize the process. In short, Julia “played a central role in her brother’s projects.” Later authors have summarized Trescott’s findings by calling Julia a co-inventor.

Not so fast, says Norman C. Craig, a chemist at Oberlin, in the Fall 1997 issue of Chemical Heritage (the magazine of the Chemical Heritage Foundation). Illustrating the familiar truth that history is a myth disagreed upon, Craig denies virtually every one of Trescott’s points. Julia’s technical contributions were negligible, he says, and while she and Charles did discuss the progress of his experiments (no surprise, since they lived together), it is not clear whether Julia completely understood what Charles was doing. Nor is there any evidence that she kept records or saved letters for patent purposes (Charles’s notebooks and papers were entirely adequate) or helped attract investors (Charles used his own contacts). Her main contribution was running the family home, leaving Charles free to concentrate on his scientific work.

What, then, was Julia Hall’s role: co-inventor, indispensable assistant, secretary, or housekeeper? Should she and Charles be paired together like Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson? Or would that be like crediting Jane Austen’s maid as co-author of her novels?

In the end the disagreement may be less sharp than it appears. Craig and Trescott agree that Julia Hall was very smart and unusually well educated for her day. They also agree that she was her brother’s closest confidante (neither of the Halls ever married), that the two often discussed his research, and that she gave valuable testimony in his patent case. Trescott, knowing how women’s work has been ignored throughout history, surmises that she must have played a large (though mostly unrecorded) role in the discovery. In what some feminist theorists would call a femaleoriented version of history, her paper emphasizes a complex interplay of many factors, such as Charles and Julia’s contrasting personalities, rather than simple notions of cause and effect played out by isolated agents. Craig’s approach, by contrast, is masculine and scientific: facts, records, evidence.

By bringing out Julia’s contribution, Trescott reminds us that behind every “lone” inventor stands a host of supporters and contributors, many of them women. Craig makes an equally valid point: Help and advice are important, but it took a dogged experimenter toiling in a laboratory, getting his hands dirty with practical work, to actually isolate the process. Students of technology would do well to learn from both accounts.

Some have called her a co-inventor of her brother’s process for refining aluminum. But did she really have anything to do with the discovery? A new study says no.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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