Aluminum candles: Alcoa, Pittsburgh-born and bred, marks 125 years

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Even in a city where the population is aging and centenarians are not all that uncommon, a 125th birthday is a rarity worth celebrating.

Alcoa, the world's leading producer of primary and fabricated aluminum, observed the watershed on Monday, one day early. Alcoa was born on Oct. 1, 1888, as the Pittsburgh Reduction Co., after founder Alfred Hunt and a group of steel executives bought the rights to Charles Martin Hall's patent for smelting aluminum.

As part of the observance, a historical marker was unveiled that will be installed in the Strip District, where the group built its first smelter at 32nd and Smallman streets. In 1907, the firm became the Aluminum Company of America, later shortened to Alcoa. It now employs 61,000 people in 30 countries, 2,000 of them in southwestern Pennsylvania.

For a century, the company was synonymous with Pittsburgh. In the 1950s it constructed a 30-story headquarters Downtown that showcased the use of aluminum as a building material. It later built and moved to a gleaming, wavy-facade office center overlooking the Allegheny River from the North Shore. For decades Alcoa's name illuminated the night sky from its famous sign on Mount Washington.

But in 2006, to the disappointment of many Pittsburghers, Alcoa moved a small contingent of executives to a new headquarters in New York City. The consolation is that it maintains the Pittsburgh corporate office, which employs far more people.

Klaus Kleinfeld, Alcoa's chairman and CEO, kicked off the celebration with a speech in Pittsburgh to several hundred employees who are participating in a monthlong community service effort. He announced a gift, not to Alcoa but from its foundation -- $1.25 million to fund an internship program for 500 students over two years.

The goal is to pay students as they train for careers in manufacturing, here and abroad. The program has designated $125,000 for local use.

As Pittsburgh grows and evolves, a longtime corporate citizen such as Alcoa continues to play a vital role in the region. Happy birthday.

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