Meet Edward Goodrich Acheson, the inventor of carborundum

On February 28, 1893, Acheson received a patent for what he called carborundum, and what we now know as silicon carbide. From a career that began with installing electrical lights, Acheson went on to become an independent inventor and entrepreneur. A.S.Ganesh turns the spotlight on Acheson…

Silicon carbide occurs in nature as moissanite, an extremely rare mineral. Synthetic substitutes of this compound, which is made up of silicon and carbon, have been mass produced since 1893 and used as an abrasive (a substance for rubbing away surfaces). American inventor and entrepreneur Edward Goodrich Acheson is the reason why silicon carbide is also known as carborundum, even though the reasoning behind this naming is now known to be flawed.

Born in 1856, Acheson was raised in the coal fields of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Fascinated by mathematics and engineering as a child, Acheson was forced to shoulder the burden of his family as a teenager following the death of his father. Even though he left school at the age of 16 and did odd jobs to support his family, he spent his evenings performing experiments, especially those with electrical equipment.

Wins over Edison

After being turned down by American chemist Edward Weston, who made electroplating dynamos, Acheson secured a position with American inventor Thomas Edison. It is believed that Acheson tried to sell a battery of his own making to Edison in 1880 and ended up working for him.

                                                                                                               cilicon carbide or carborundum.

Acheson started at Edison’s research lab in Menlo Park by working on the development of electrical lighting. Edison was quick to spot the talent of Acheson and made him his assistant chief engineer. Acheson was sent to Europe to take care of the installation of electrical systems in a number of places, including the Paris Exhibition of 1881, Hotel de Ville in Antwerp, and the La Scala opera house in Milan.

In search of an abrasive

Following his return to New York in 1884, Acheson parted ways with Edison, and soon set out on his new adventure as an independent inventor. He began with experiments to produce artificial diamonds using an electric furnace. In search of a strong and durable abrasive that could be used for industrial purposes, Acheson tried heating carbon to a point where it would result in diamond.

As this process failed, Acheson tried to heat a mixture of clay and carbon and electrically fuse it. The resulting shiny, hexagonal crystals of silicon carbide were hard enough to scratch glass. Mistaking the crystals for a compound of carbon and alumina from the clay, Acheson devised the trademark carborundum. He arrived at this name from corundum, which is the mineral that is composed of fused alumina.

Acheson applied for a patent for his process of producing carborundum, and received it on February 28, 1893. As the hardest substance made until then by humans, and second in hardness only to diamond, carborundum soon rose to prominence. Industries realised the abrasive utility of the substance and it soon became impossible to manufacture precision-ground, interchangeable metal parts without it.

The flaw in the naming

Even though carborundum was later known to be silicon carbide, the name Acheson used has stuck to the substance owing to the immense popularity it enjoyed. Acheson established a company and a manufacturing unit for carborundum, but had to set up a larger plant in Niagara Falls in 1895 when demand kept increasing.

Carborundum also put Acheson onto the discovery of artificial graphite. While studying the effects of high temperatures on carborundum, Acheson realised that the silicon vaporised at about 4,500 degrees Celsius, leaving graphitic carbon as the product. Acheson patented and commercialised the process of producing graphite as well and, in fact, collected over 50 patents through the course of his lifetime.

By the time Acheson died in 1931, he had found expression both to his inventive genius and business spirit. Even though he wasn’t a great manager himself, a number of Acheson’s original companies still live on, often as subsidiaries in other companies. As for his carborundum, the U.S. Patent Office named it among the patents most responsible for the industrial age.

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