The story of asphalt begins thousands of years before the founding of the United States. Asphalt occurs naturally in both asphalt lakes and in rock asphalt (a mixture of sand, limestone and asphalt). The history and use of asphalt is actually very interesting.
The first recorded use of asphalt as a road building material was in Babylon around 615 BCE, in the reign of King Nabopolassar. In A Century of Progress: The History of Hot Mix Asphalt, published by National Asphalt Pavement Association in 1992, author Hugh Gillespie notes that “an inscription on a brick records the paving of the Procession Street of Babylon, which led from his palace to the north wall of the city, ‘with asphalt and burned brick.’”
At least 2,600 years ago the ancient Mesopatamians used it to waterproof and seal their water tanks and temple baths. Shown here is a Akkadian Cuneiform Tablet, A Letter Concerning Bitumen (ca. 2350–2150 BCE) that was unearthed by archaeologists. In Egypt it was utilized as mortar for the laying of rocks along the banks of the Nile River which helped to prevent and reduce flooding and it is reputed that the basket into which Moses was laid was waterproofed with asphalt.
The renowned author Laura Ingalls Wilder who gave unto us the acclaimed “Little House on the Prairie” series relates her first experience with asphalt while on a wagon train with her parents in 1894 while going through Topeka.
“In the very midst of the city, the ground was covered by some dark stuff that silenced all the wheels and muffled the sound of hoofs. It was like tar, but Papa was sure it was not tar, and it was something like rubber, but it could not be rubber because rubber cost too much. We saw ladies all in silks and carrying ruffled parasols, walking with their escorts across the street. Their heels dented the street, and while we watched, these dents slowly filled up and smoothed themselves out. It was as if that stuff were alive. It was like magic.”
Englishman John Metcalf, born in 1717, built 180 miles of Yorkshire roads. He insisted on good drainage, requiring a foundation of large stones covered with excavated road material to raise the roadbed, followed by a layer of gravel. Thomas Telford built more than 900 miles of roads in Scotland during the years 1803–1821. “He perfected the method of building roads with broken stones, laid to a depth according to the weight and volume of traffic it would have to carry,” Gillespie writes.
Belgian chemist Edmund J. DeSmedt laid the first true asphalt pavement in the U.S. in Newark, N.J. DeSmedt also paved Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. – using 54,000 square yards of sheet asphalt from Trinidad Lake. The Cummer Company opened the first central hot mix production facilities in the U.S. The first asphalt patent was filed by Nathan B. Abbott of Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1871.
Frederick J. Warren filed a patent for “Bitulithic” pavement, a mixture of bitumen and aggregate (“bitu” from “bitumen” and “lithic” from “lithos,” the Greek word for rock). The first modern asphalt facility was built in 1901 by Warren Brothers in East Cambridge, Mass
Production of refined petroleum asphalt outstripped the use of natural asphalt. As automobiles grew in popularity, the demand for more and better roads led to innovations in both producing and laying asphalt. Steps toward mechanization included drum mixers and portland cement concrete mechanical spreaders for the first machine-laid asphalt.
Today asphalt concrete, normally known as asphalt or AC comes from the process of crude oils and petroleum products. The word asphalt is Greek “asphaltos” meaning secure. Everything of value is removed from crude oil what is left is made into asphalt. Asphalt basically is asphalt binder and mineral aggregate mixed together and then laid down in layers and compacted.
This dark and resilient material covers more than 94% of the paved roads in the United States and is a popular choice for driveways, parking lots, airport runways, racetracks and other applications to numerous to mention. It goes by many names such as blacktop, tarmac, macadam plant mix, asphalt concrete, bituminous concrete, asphalt pavement and more.
More information regarding the History of Asphalt available here:
- N.A.P.A. – History of Asphalt