The Governor, Lord Rowallan, at the Comalco plant in 1960 (AOT, PH30/1/3569)

The first aluminium smelter in the southern hemisphere was built at Bell Bay near George Town and commenced production in 1955. The impetus was the need for a secure supply of aluminium for defence purposes. In 1944 the commonwealth and Tasmanian governments agreed to establish an aluminium smelter in Tasmania. Both contributed equally to the Australian Aluminium Production Commission project's capital costs. Access to a deep-water port as well as low cost electricity were important criteria in the selection of Bell Bay as the smelter site. Construction started in 1950, the first shipment of bauxite arrived in 1954, alumina production commenced in February 1955 and the first ingot of aluminium was poured in September. Production increased slowly as the smelter faced considerable technical problems.

In 1959 the commonwealth government sought to end its involvement by selling or closing the smelter. In order to avoid closure, the Tasmanian government funded the expansion of the smelter capacity from 12,000 to 16,000 tons per year. In 1960 Consolidated Zinc Pty Ltd, which had discovered the large bauxite deposits at Weipa, Queensland, acquired the commonwealth's interests through Comalco Industries Pty Ltd. Expansion of the plant has continued with annual production increasing from 15,000 tons in 1962 to more than 160,000 tons in 2003.

Aluminium smelting has been a key element of the Tasmanian government's hydro-industrialisation programme. The establishment of the smelter has had a profound impact on George Town and seen the development of a major industrial centre at Bell Bay.

Further reading: B Carroll, Potlines and people, Melbourne, 1980; R Ferrall, The story of the port of Launceston, Launceston, 1983.

Chris Tassell