As you consider the many steps required to get our society to what we see today, it’s mind boggling to think of just how hard humans have had to work, both physically and mentally. Each step of progress was founded on a previous discovery or experiment. And asphalt production is just one example. The history of asphalt is pretty cool and comes with its own ups and downs. Here’s a brief download of asphalt’s life:
Rewind time all the way back to 600,000,000 B.C. when the earth was full of tiny organisms and microscopic algae. As these creatures died, they sank to the bottom of the ocean floor and collected to become pockets of bitumen, the raw material to produce asphalt. A few million years later, in about 200,000,000 B.C., that material started to seep through the ground forming natural deposits of bitumen. (Fun fact: some of the largest deposits of bitumen can be found here in Utah.)
The first recorded document of people mixing sand and stone with tar was with the ancient Babylonians. The Babylonians were a Mesopotamian culture located in what is now known as Iraq. In around 625 B.C., they mixed the materials together to make buildings, and were successful at it for quite some time. The word asphalt comes from the Greek word “asphaltos,” which aptly means “secure.”
Europeans began using a basic asphalt mix in the early 1700s as a very limited road foundation. In the 1800s, Thomas Telford, a Sottish civil engineer, tried using it to build more than 900 miles of road in Scotland. Around that same time, the next major step came when another Scottish man named John McAdam perfected the use of the mixture. He invented a process called “macadamisation” using the mixture to create roads with a hard, smooth surface. For a while, the asphalt paving mix of sand, stone, and tar was called “tarmcadam” or “macadam.” The term “tarmac,” which is used to describe an airport runway, was derived from these terms and is only seen in the aviation industry. Tarmac, although called different, is no different than any other paved road.
In the United States, asphalt pavement began in 1870 when a Belgium chemist named Edmund DeSmedt applied the pavement in front of the city hall building in Newark, New Jersey. He also paved Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. using bitumen from Trinidad Lake. Shortly thereafter, in 1900, Frederick Warren patented “bitulithic” pavement and the first modern asphalt building was completed in 1901 in Massachusetts. Outside of the United States, asphalt is often still called bitumen.
Major improvements to asphalt occurred during WWII because of the high demand for a hard, smooth surface to land aircraft. Additionally, with the invention and quick-growing popularity of automobiles, the need for a solid surface to drive on increased rapidly. Since then, asphalt has continued to improve and thrive throughout the world. It is a time-tested product with a track record of long-term success.