Edward Goodrich Acheson’s research led to the discovery of carborundum, an important abrasive second only to the diamond in hardness. He also produced graphite in a very pure form, which resulted from heating carborundum to a high temperature.
Born: May 9, 1856; Washington, Pennsylvania
Died: July 6, 1931; New York, New York
Primary field: Chemistry
Primary inventions: Carborundum; graphite-making process
Early Life of Edward Goodrich Acheson
Born and raised in southwestern Pennsylvania, Edward Goodrich Acheson was educated at home by his parents, William and Sarah Acheson. He briefly attended Bellefonte Academy in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, but was largely self-taught. He excelled in mathematics and mechanics.In 1872, at the age of sixteen, he filed patent caveat for a force auger for use in coal mining. In the following year, his father died, and Acheson was forced to work full-time in order to provide for his mother and sisters. He worked at various railroad jobs and surveyed tank capacities in the oil fields. Briefly, he even attempted mining iron ore in a partnership with his brother, William.Acheson continued to study and invent in the evenings, focusing mainly on electricity, and hoped to work for an employer manufacturing electrical equipment. He applied to Edward Weston, a manufacturer of electroplating dynamos, but was turned down. Working on his own, Acheson created an electric pile. He took the battery to Thomas Alva Edison, who saw promise in the young inventor and hired him on September 12, 1880, to work in his workshop in Menlo Park, New Jersey.
Edward Goodrich Acheson Life’s Work
Working under JohnKruesi, Acheson experimented with developing a conducting carbon for Edison’s electric light bulb, and he was successful enough to be credited withcontributingtoEdison’sinvention.More important, Edison appreciated Acheson’s inventiveness. About a year and a half after he started working for Edison, Acheson was sent to Europe as assistant chief engineer. During the next two and a half years, he installed electric generating plants and lamp factories in England, France, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Among the most not able public buildings in which he established successful electric lighting systems were the Hôtel de Ville in Antwerp, the Muséedu Nordin Brussels, the Restaurant Krasnapolskyin Amsterdam, and the LaScala Theater in Milan.
In 1884, Acheson returned to the United States, stopped working for Edison, and became a competitor as the superintendent of a plant manufacturing electric lamps.He married Margaret Maher in the same year and started a family that eventually included four daughters and five sons.
Acheson’s dream was to create artificial diamonds.
His experiments after 1884 were directed to that end, but the road to that goal was long and arduous. Along the way, he invented a number of other highly useful materials. He earned the first of his seventy patents in 1886 with his invention of a “conductor of electricity,” which he sold to George Westinghouse. Subsequently, the Standard Underground Cable Company purchased the patent and developed it further in its electrical transmission business. Acheson continued his research into high-temperature electric furnaces, a necessary firsts epi the development of the abrasives for which he would become famous.
In 1891, he obtained the use of a powerful electric generating power plant in Port Huron, NewYork (at Edison’s suggestion), where he worked to impregnate clay with carbon in an attempt to create artificial diamonds. The resulting mass contained some small, shiny specks, which turned out to be silicon carbide, which he called “carborundum”—a name based on his mistaken belief that he had combined carbon with alumina. On February 28, 1893, he patented a method for making silicon carbide. The silicon carbide he created was the hardest synthetic abrasive in the world, rivalling the diamond in hardness.
In 1894, Acheson started the Carborundum Company in Monongahela a City, Pennsylvania, to produce a variety of grinding and abrasive tools and materials, including grinding wheels, knife sharpeners, whetstones, and abrasive powders. This plant quickly became too small to keep up with demand, so Acheson established a second, larger plant at Niagara Falls, New York, in 1895, when his factory became the second company to establish a long-term business arrangement with the Niagara Falls Power Company.
By 1896, Acheson had discovered that, if he heated carborundum to about 7,500° Fahrenheit (about 4,150° Celsius), the silicon would vaporize, leaving behind a very pure graphite (carbon). Later that year, he patented this process. Graphite was especially valuable at this time as an abrasive and, counterintuitively, as a lubricant. It was also used in the loop filaments in the incandescent lamps of the era.
In1899, the Acheson Graphite Company was formed to manufacture the graphite, which was increasingly in demand for various uses. Acheson now was able to produce the graphite from calcine carbon and anthracite coal. This company merged with the National Carbon Company in 1928 and ultimately became Union Carbide.
Acheson also expanded the use of graphite as a lubricant. He suspended it in a variety of liquids such as oil
and water, producing the commercial colloidal graphite products Oildag and Aquadag, which were manufactured by the Acheson Colloids Company(laterAcheson Industries). Altogether, Acheson successfully established at least five major industrial corporations, including the International Acheson Graphite Company(1908) and the British Acheson Oil dag Company(1911), in addition to those mentioned above.
Acheson was not a particularly effective manager. Many of his companies had to be reorganised or removed from his direct control by concerned investors, but this fact should not obscure the significance of his inventions. His accomplishments have been recognized by a number of honorary degrees and awards from a wide variety of chemical, industrial, technical, and manufacturing organisations. In 1997, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Invention of Carborundum and Graphite
Edward Goodrich Acheson developed very high-temperature electric furnaces that he used in novel ways to create some very important industrial products, some of which were created by accident. In the 1880’s, he was trying to create artificial diamonds by heating various carbon compounds to a very high temperature.In1891, he discovered carborundum, mistakenly believing that he had created an alumina compound when in fact he had created silicon carbide. Silicon carbide occurs in nature as the extremely rare mineral moissanite (named for its discoverer, French chemist HenriMoissan).Silicon carbide is an extremely useful abrasive, and it is synthesized from inexpensive raw materials. Considered one of the most important inventions of the industrial age, the material is used in a variety of applications—from sand papers to cutting tools to semiconductors—and has been used as a diamond simulant.
While heating carborundum to a temperature of 7,500° Fahrenheit (about 4,150°Celsius), Acheson created a nearly pure graphite, and the new process was duly patented. Graphite was an important material used in the carbon filaments in Thomas Alva Edison’s incandescent light bulbs. This was Acheson’s first claim to fame. Perhaps more important to world history was the fact that Acheson’s graphite was also used as a neutron moderator in the nuclear fission experiments of Enrico Fermi, who created the world’s first nuclear reactor in a secret laboratory at the University of Chicago in 1942. This was significant because the German nuclear program during World War II lacked access to high-quality graphite and instead used scarce heavy water as a moderator, delaying its development of nuclear fission and preventing the Germans from building anatomic bomb.
Impact Acheson’s discovery of carborundum
In 1926, the U.S. Patent Office rated Acheson’s discovery of carborundum (silicon carbide) as one of the twenty-two most important patented inventions responsible for creating the industrial age. Carborundum has played a critical role in the manufacture of
In 1926, the U.S. Patent Office rated Acheson’s discovery of carborundum (silicon carbide) as one of the twenty-two most important patented inventions responsible for creating the industrial age. Carborundum has played a critical role in the manufacture of precision ground interchangeable metal components.Without carborundum, mass production of these specialized parts would be impossible. Carborundum has also been used in the production of almost pure graphite.
Graphite has its own role to play as an brasive and as a lubricant, but it has even played a significant role in the production of nuclear energy.Graphite is a valuable neutron moderator in nuclear reactors.Without a significant supply of graphite, the U.S.-British development of the atomic bomb in World War II might not have been possible, since the only known alternative to graphite was “heavy water”(anisotopic form of water), of which Germany possessed most of the world’s supply.
Acheson was an active inventor, establishing five major industrial corporations that used electrothermal techniques. He patented seventy different abrasives, oxide reductions, refractories, and graphite products.