Wednesday, May 8, 2013

History of Aluminum...and the Light-Weight Shoe.

Chapter 1
Pierre Lorillard IV --
 A Sporting Man...and More:
Born in Westchester, New York, he was the son of Pierre Lorillard III (1196-1867) and Catherine Griswold.  In 1760, his great-grandfather and namesake, founded P. Lorillard and Company in New York City to process tobacco, cigars and snuff.  Today, Lorillard Tobacco Company is the oldest tobacco company in the US.
In the early 1880's Lorillard helped make Newport, Rhode Island, a yachting center with his schooner Vesta and a steam yacht, Radha.  He owned a summer estate in Newport called "The Breakers," which he sold to Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1885 in order to establish his newly developed estate, "The Tuxedo Club," at what became known as Tuxedo Park in Orange County, New York.  Lorillard had inherited 13,000 acres around Tuxedo Lake, which he developed in conjunction with William Waldorf Astor and other wealthy associates into a luxury retreat.  The name of the lake shares one of Lorillard's many innovations -- the Tuxedo jacket -- first introduced at one the Tuxedo Club's numerous and extravagant balls. 
Aluminum -- 
A Short History:
The metal was first produced by Danish physicist Hans Christian Orsted in about 1825, however historically the ancient Greeks and Romans used alum salts as both a dying mordant and an astringent powder for wounds.  A Frenchman, Guyton de Morveau first coined the name alumine in 1761 -- the discovery of a metal base within the alum powder occurring about 1808 by Humphry Davy, this base metal coined alumium...later aluminum. However...
Nobody knew where it came from or for that matter how to extract it in quantity.  Many experiments took place during the 1820-30's -- some scientists believing the new metal to be a purified form of potassium.  It was about this time that Pierre Berthier made the discovery that aluminum hung out in bauxite deposits, which comprised about 7% of the earth's crust.  Great news if you could figure out a way to separate the materials.  Frenchman Henri Etienne Sainte-Claire Deville (that's a $3.00 name to be sure), improved on Wohler's early work, but the process was expensive and time consuming.  However, Deville had also considered using electrolysis on aluminum oxide that was then dissolved in cryolite.  However, perfecting that process would come much later.
Those darn French again!
Aluminum Ingots
  Exposition Universelle of 1855:
Aluminum bars were first exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1855.  These world expos as they were known were extremely popular during the Industrial Revolution as both a celebration of science and industry; as well as a showcase for a new sense of nationalism sweeping over Europe.  The latter would of course, have disastrous consequences later, through the militaristic union of science with political objectives, but in 1855 these expos were still considered trade-fairs of pretty massive proportions.  During the 1855 version, "Napoleon III was reputed to have given a banquet where the most honoured guests were given aluminum utensils, while the others made do with gold."  And Napoleon was the financial backer of Deville, the man who also discovered a method for extracting platinum.  However, Napoleon's real interest wasn't in making fancy dining utensils -- he was looking for lightweight armor for his army. Still, these aluminum utensils were displayed at the Universelle right next to the French Crown Jewels.
But aluminum (in the 1850's) remained extremely difficult and expensive to extract from its mother ores.  Even so,  the popularity of aluminum had extended all the way across the pond to the Americas, where the material was selected for the 100oz capstone of the Washington Monument (1884), at a time when a single ounce of aluminum cost the daily wage of a common worker on the project. The capstone was the largest single piece of aluminum cast at the time -- aluminum matching the market-price of silver:  $32lb [$750lb by today's standards.]  So, how did they mange to produce it in bulk?

.Along came Charles Martin Hall (Ohio) and Paul Heroult (France), who independently developed what would come to be known as the Hall-Heroult Process of electrolysis in aluminum production -- a system allowing for ore extraction that was far cheaper than all existing technology at the time and is basically the same process used to this day. Charles Hall patented his process in the US in 1886, under the company name, Pittsburgh Reduction Company -- known today as ALCOA.   But of equal, perhaps larger importance was that none of this would have been possible without Thomas Edison's invention of the dynamo, allowing both sufficient and consistent electrical power for the processing of bauxite.

So how did Pierre Lorillard IV fit into this equation?  Lorillard was a tobacconist, but he was also a racing man, frequently taking his stable of runners to Europe, particularly England.  It is highly likely that Lorillard attended these European expos as he was very much interested in technology, having invented and adapted machinery and techniques in his own factories.  However, it appears unlikely that he first saw the aluminum metal at the Paris Universelle in 1855 -- Lorillard being a mere 22-years of age at the time. However, the Universelle of 1878 is a different matter and Lorillard's initial interest in this new metal was fundamental to his business, not his sport: wrappers for his cigarette packages, which were traditionally wrapped in lead foil: expensive and ultimately pretty toxic.
But it is here that the story gets complicated.  It is known that Lorillard returned from one of his English campaigns, most likely the 1881 venture where his home bred, Iroquois won the Epsom Derby under the skillful handling of Fred Archer.  Insult to injury -- Iroquois also annexed the St. Leger.  Lorillard had homes in both Paris and London and it had been reported that he returned to New York with an ingot of this 'new' metal.  But he didn't just make cigarette wrappers out of it.
"The first horse to wear aluminum shoes was Pierre Lorillard's Wanda, a foal of 1882 and a brilliant filly who won 12 of 24 starts.  She was also second eight times.  Wanda had graceful action and trainer Matt Byrnes was encouraged to try lighter shoes on her.  Lorillard had the plates crafted by Tiffany's, the Fifth Avenue jewelers, and Wanda wore them in most of her races."  LA Times.
However, W.S. Vosburgh, one of America's greatest turf writers and historians, said it much better in his biography of Pierre Lorillard, "Cherry and Black:"
"She had a rather 'tucked-up' appearance in the flanks, and stood high on the leg; some would have called her ungainly, but this was due to her 'dip-ing' a trifle as it came out of her shoulders -- a feature that never adds to beauty in a horse.  Seen in action, she was another being -- it was smooth, wire-hung and frictionless.  She seemed scarcely to touch the ground -- as Matt Byrnes [the trainer] put it, "She acts as if the ground wasn't good enough for her," -- and her stride, very long and elastic, was never known to shorten under stress of pace.  She was the first horse Mr. Lorillard tried with aluminum plates made by Tiffany and Co..  They suited her light action, but when he tried [them] on Drake Carter, they were an utter failure."

Chapter 2

And so, aluminum disappeared as a material for horse shoes (plates) until the 1930's, though by 1895, the light-weight metal was being used as a building material as far away as Sydney, Australia.  Part of the problem was price, for like gold, platinum and later, titanium -- these metals were subject to fluctuations in the metal's market.  But there was a bigger issue brooding in the late 1800's and at the dawn of the new century. [See, this site's entry on Guilds.]  That was wrapped tightly around the obsolescence of the horse as a tool of transport; more importantly, the ruinous loss of self-worth felt by the artisans (including blacksmiths and farriers), being swallowed -- then discarded on the rubbish pile of an almost rabid industrialization.

Though some aluminum racing plates were being manufactured in England, it wasn't until 1928 that a small start-up in Baltimore, Maryland -- The Victory Racing Plate Company -- working in conjunction with ALCOA, created America's first racing plate of its own.  And in the spirit of later American entrepreneurs -- it all started with a tinkerer in a garage.  According to David Erb (of The Victory Racing Plate Company):
"It all started with a horse named Signola."  Seems most good stories do.  Leonard Liepman was a successful Baltimore attorney, who also raced a small string of runners at Woodbine. He had seen some of the other horses being fitted with aluminum shoes -- these from England -- tried them on his horse Signola with phenomenal results.  However, the shoes appeared to have a one-race life expectancy.  That sent Liepman on a serious R and D hunt which almost bankrupted the young entrepreneur.  In stepped George Palmbaum, one of Liepman's numerous clients, found the concept intriguing and invested.  Yet even so, numerous setbacks plagued the development of the shoe, both in finding a suitable alloy of aluminum and the much trickier part:  incorporating steel inserts for traction and wear.

Victory -- the original
The technical problems were eventually resolved, but Liebman was up against a tougher obstacle, one that he might not have anticipated -- the culture of blacksmiths (platers) who held long memories of the devastation wrought upon their trade just two decades earlier. In fact, it was technology itself that had banished many of the surviving horseshoers to the nation's racetracks in the first place.  Instead of viewing these new manufactured shoes as a profit-maker, they saw them as a threat -- assuming (illogically of course), that these pre-made shoes would allow grooms, trainers, hot walkers...the bartender down the street -- all could start plating runners.  A re-make of the very scenario that first destroyed the European craft guilds and eventually the skilled artisans in America.  And oddly perhaps, this mentality among farriers still thrives today in the ongoing debate over hand-made versus manufactured shoes.  And like the 1920's, it isn't about money, it is about the perception of self-worth in a changing age.

Even in light of such resistance, Liepman continued to pound the asphalt at the nation's tracks, adopting a number of marketing strategies -- finally adopting the stratagem that pharmaceutical companies have found so useful today:  skip the middleman, whether it be doctor or plater.  Many trainers believed in the old adage, "an ounce on the hoof equaled a pound on the back."  And some top trainers, like Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and Hersch Jacob bought into the cliche.  And horses like Omaha (1935 Triple Crown), Seabiscuit in his famous match race with War Admiral -- well, that sealed the fate of this new shoe. 

The Great Match Race
But then, along came World War II.  Aluminum was a strategic material, like iron and rubber and subject to strict rationing outside of military applications.  On top of these restrictions, many of the nations tracks closed for the duration of the war.  On the west coast, some race track barns were converted to internment camps for housing American citizens of Japanese descent.  And since this blog never abandons historical fact for the more convenient realm of revisionism, it is a sad statement on the integrity of those Americans who continue to embrace the US Constitution selectively -- yes, I am referring to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba...a truly American-style Gulag, built on little more than the twin pillars of arrogance and fear -- a far cry from the accountability needed to acknowledge a continued animosity of our own making...      
But that issue aside, the story of the aluminum shoe continues.  In the post-war years, The Victory Racing Plate Company saw its first serious competition by the west coast upstart, Thoro'Bred Racing Plate Company which started production about 1949.  As often happens, military campaigns have a huge impact on research and technology and following such conflicts, the science tends to trickle down to civilian applications.  Much was learned during the war years on aluminum alloys, hardening techniques, heat treating and fatigue properties.  All of these breakthroughs not only found their way into the construction of a new era of jet aircraft, but into the aluminum racing shoe as well.  But it would not be until the 1960's that the horse itself would once again find a broader purpose in America -- an animal of recreation and sport.  And aluminum would once again play a role.
Around 1975, a farrier and innovator from Belltown, NJ invented and began marketing the most misunderstood shoe in America.  His name was Walt Koepisch, the company: Dutchtown Forge.  The shoe was a 3/8 x 1" aluminum shoe -- wide-web and extremely lightweight.  The design was the culmination of numerous discussions with farriers at the top eastern show barns -- including the man at the anvil for the USET:  Seamus Brady.  The shoe was based on a simple principle:  flotation, not necessarily support.  The first problem surrounded footing.  Most major shows were held indoors or on outdoor courses that were primarily sand-based.  Nice on the horses legs, but deep -- this causing too much down time on the hoof entering and exiting this type of surface.  By adding to the exertion required to exit this deeper ground, the stride was adversely affected, i.e., too much knee action.  As Walt put it:
"How to improve heel flotation [or support] is very important to some show horses because the main reason for their existence is for the horse's ability to move with a balanced, fluid and pretty frame.  Judges are horsemen and horsemen like good-moving, pretty horses, and if judging the class has anything to do with movement [hunters], the better mover will have the edge....Most any show horse that does not depend on a stopwatch or measuring stick will benefit from better movement.  Even so, the jumpers and speed horses can be helped through an improvement in balance and timing."  Anvil Magazine, Sept., 2000.       

So the real issue was never the weight of the shoe directly -- only the idea of greatly increasing the flotation aspect, the heightened ability of the horse to get on and off the ground in the speediest and most conducive manner.  Less effort, smoother action, whether hunter OR jumper. And as a bonus, substantial reduction of weight carried.  And for a Thoroughbred (the show horse of the 1970's and 80's), a critical element, something that is rarely an issue with today's Warmbloods.

Even so, the shoe became a panacea for all ails well into the 1980's, with many imitators and countless versions.  Walt's shoes were originally extruded and bent from bar -- later versions produced through various methods of casting.  Hardness and abrasion qualities naturally varied according to manufacturing specifications, but most were in the range of H1-H3 -- HX-8, being standard military grade, forging variances in military versions being two narrow for crude forging applications, complicated by the percentage of magnesium found in these products.  Magnesium is both highly flammable and produces its own accelerator during combustion.  Which means if you light it on fire, the best thing to do is bury it and move to another town.

Old friends...Robert Ridland and Benoit
Aluminum shoes continue to be a very popular and versatile shoe, even if not completely understood. This idea of flotation versus support is more of a case of "proof in the pudding" than actual science, but has endured over a thirty years of hands-on evaluation.  As a side-note, some years ago titanium appeared to be the new 'aluminum shoe' around the jump rings.  Sadly, titanium bars (sheared from plate), were simply too difficult to forge -- impossible to drill and tap.  A little later a titanium shoe was produced using a powder-metallurgy process that was far more user-friendly.  [This author did numerous stories on this particular shoe -- even for Popular Science.]  However, the developers missed Walt Koepisch's critical points on flotation.  The end product was a 1/4 x 3/4 standard type of shoe...the benefits of this pricey item:  negligible.  A lesson in how one can engineer the most perfect shoe in the world and somehow entirely and completely miss that there is a horse involved; further, that the horse has a job to do.