Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
Edward Acheson (1856-1931) Edward Goodrich Acheson, inventor
of carborundum, was born in Washington, Pennsylvania on March
9, 1856. Carborandum, a substance he developed in his laboratory,
became known as a highly effective abrasive used in manufacturing,
and was an important influence during the industrial era.
As a child, Acheson had been fascinated by engineering and
mathematics. When his father died Acheson, still a teenager,
was forced to go to work, so he did various railroad jobs
and did experiments after hours. He became interested in the
electrical field and decided to work for a manufacturer of
electrical equipment. He first applied to Edward Weston who
made electroplating dynamos but was turned down. But the,
at the age of 25, he was able to secure a position with Thomas
Edison in his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratories.
In Edison's Lab, Acheson worked on the development and installation
of electrical lighting, including working on the lamp exhibit
at the Paris Exhibition in 1881. Edison himself had quickly
recognized his inventive genius and made him an assistant
Acheson returned to New York in 1884 and became superintendent
of a plant manufacturing lamps that competed with those invented
by Edison. Acheson soon started doing experiments of his own.
He first tried heating carbon to the point at which a diamond
would result in an attempt to create a strong and durable
industrial abrasive. This process failed, so Acheson began
mixing clay with carbon and electrically fusing it. The product
that resulted had several shiny specks that were hard enough
to scratch glass. It was silicon carbide. However, because
he at first mistakenly thought the crystals were a compound
of carbon and alumina from the clay, he devised the trademark
carborundum, after corundum, the mineral composed of fused
alumina. In 1893 he received a patent on the substance.
Soon after Acheson came up with the process for creating
carborandum, many realized that the mass production manufacturing
of precision-ground, interchangeable metal parts would be
practically impossible without the substance. The hardest
surface made by man and second only to diamond in hardness,
carborandum ended the search for a highly effective and durable
abrasive that industry had so badly needed. Acheson established
a manufacturing plant for carborundum in Monongohela, Pennsylvania,
but demand for the product soon exceeded his ability to supply
it, so he built a larger plant in 1895 in Niagara Falls.
Meanwhile, in the mid 1890s, Acheson discovered that overheating
carborundum produced almost pure graphite. While studying
the effects of high temperature on carborundum, he had found
that silicon vaporizes at about 4,150° C (7,500° F),
leaving behind graphitic carbon. This graphite was another
major discovery for him, and it became extremely valuable
and helpful as a lubricant. The Acheson Graphite Co. was formed
in 1899. In 1928 this company was merged with National Carbon
Co (now Union Carbide). Acheson also developed a variety of
colloidal graphite products including Oildag and Aquadag.
These were later manufactured by the Acheson Colloids Co.
(now Acheson Industries).
Over the course of his career Acheson received a total of
70 patents relating to abrasives, graphite products, reduction
of oxides, and refractories. Acheson received many honors
and awards including the Perkin Medal and an honorary doctoral
degree from the University of Pittsburgh. In 1928, he used
his own funds to establish what is known as the Edward Goodrich
Acheson Award. He was the first recipient of the award in
In 1908 the American Academy of Arts and Sciences awarded
Dr. Acheson the Count Rumford Medal for his applications of
heat in the electric furnace for industrial purposes. He was
awarded the John Scott Medal by the Franklin Institute in
1894 for the invention of carborundum, and in 1901 for the
invention of artificial graphite. Dr. Acheson also received
the Grand Prix at the Exposition Universelle Internationale,
Paris in 1900, the Gold Medal at Pan-American Exposition of
1901 for artificial graphite, and the Grand Prize at the Louisiana
Purchase Exposition in 1904 for carborundum and artificial
graphite. He died on July 6, 1931.