Aluminium extraction on an industrial scale first became possible with fused-salt electrolysis, which was discovered by Hall and Héroult in 1886 (see chronology). Industrial enterprises were formed immediately. The first aluminium smelter to start production, in August 1888, was Aluminiumindustrie AG (AIAG) in Neuhausen am Rheinfall in Switzerland. There followed a smelter in Pittsburgh, USA, in December 1888 and then two smelters in France in 1889. Further developments were needed, however, so at first aluminium production remained modest. It was also necessary to first establish sales channels. There was an upswing when AIAG reduced the price of aluminium to a quarter of its previous value in 1890/91. The first smelter in Germany was built by AIAG in Badisch-Rheinfelden in 1897. However, until the patents of Héroult and Hall expired, in 1903 and 1906 respectively, the number of companies and smelters remained small. Thereafter, aluminium smelters were also built in other countries, which almost exclusively used mountain rivers for power generation (for example in Lend, Austria, in 1908).
The First World War led to a doubling of the worldwide product to 132,000 tonnes. VAW Vereinigte Aluminiumwerke AG was established in Germany in 1917.
The level of production was subsequently continually increased, but even by 1928 there was still only an aluminium industry in ten countries, and was only of significance in Canada, the USA and the Soviet Union. After the Second World War the industry opened up new civilian markets to utilise its capacity. The period up extending into the 1970s was characterised by wide-ranging research which led to a large number of new applications and products. The large companies increasingly co-operated in bauxite mining, aluminium oxide production, smelters and product manufacture in order to be able to operate more economically thanks to this integration, and to withstand the pressure on prices due to growing competition. New countries with large resources of bauxite and energy, for example Australia, created their own industries for bauxite mining, alumina production and aluminium smelters. Production increased sharply in keeping with demand.
At the end of the 1980s, primary aluminium was being produced in about 80 countries. There were numerous smelters, hundreds of rolling mills and thousands of foundries. Everything pointed to a shift in production to countries with cheap power generation (mainly from hydroelectric power or using oil or coal), for example to the Gulf region or Iceland.