Without asphalt, most motor vehicles would be almost useless. Asphalt pavement is one of the defining features of modern society, enabling easy and cheap transportation. It’s all around us, every day, but most people don’t know about its origins.
Asphalt, or bitumen, is a viscous, black, almost solid form of oil. It is found naturally, and also in a refined state. Its most common use nowadays is in roads (where approximately 70% of asphalt goes). Most people regard it as a generally new invention. However, asphalt actually has a long history, going back to ancient times, where it had various uses. We’re going to look at asphalt’s uses over history, focusing on innovations and developments from the last 100 years, especially in the United States. For a long, in depth history of paving and asphalt all over the world look here.
Ancient Indus valley civilizations used asphalt for waterproofing, dating back to about 5000 BC. It was used for adhesive and waterproofing by the Sumerians and Babylonians as well. The ancient Egyptians used bitumen in the embalming process, getting their bitumen from the Dead Sea. In ancient Japan, items were made by boiling bitumen down to finer ingredients and then forming it. In the ancient Americas, bitumen was used as the sharp points of arrows and spears, as well as waterproofing canoes. It could also be heated in pots to drive away mosquitoes.
The word asphalt comes from the ancient Greek asphatos, which means “to secure.”
Asphalt was used throughout the world, especially in Europe and the Middle East, as a waterproofing and sealing agent up until the 1800s.
The First Asphalt Roads in the Early 1800s
The Champs-Elysee in Paris was paved in 1824, using natural asphalt. This is generally regarded as the first modern asphalt road.
Around the same time, in Scotland, roads were being built with broken stones. They were later joined with hot tar, producing a surface known as “tarmacadam.” Hot tar was actually used to ease maintenance and prolong the life of the road, as well as to reduce dust.
These early roads paved the way for the massive motorway developments that would take place in the 20th century.
Asphalt Use in the United States
The first asphalt/bitumen mixtures in the US were used for sidewalks, crosswalks, and roads, starting in the late 1860s.
In 1870, the first true asphalt pavement, derived from a sand mix was laid in New Jersey. It was successful enough that the same builder went on to pave Pennsylvania in Washington DC.
Asphalt pavement caught on quick in the United States, as it provided a much more durable surface to roads than traditional dirt or gravel.
20th Century Changes
Until the early 1900s, most asphalt in the US came from natural sources. The first modern asphalt production facility was built in 1901 in Massachusetts. By the early 1900s, production of refined asphalt superseded natural asphalt. The production process became mechanized and industrialized to take advantages of economies of scale. This facility used drum driers and drum drier mixers, mechanizing the process that was once stirring asphalt by hand. By the 1920s, the first mechanically-laid asphalt was installed.
Nothing laid the foundation for the wide-scale used of asphalt in the US like the advent of the motorcar. State and local governments began to receive innumerable requests to build better roads as more Americans acquired cars. This huge increase in demand led to innovations in asphalt production and the laying of pavement.
The Second World War
In the 1940s, the building boom of WWII dramatically increased the demand for asphalt even further. It needed to be produced and laid at a great pace. The demand largely came from the increase in enormous military aircraft. They required extremely durable surfaces for takeoff and landing.
The 1950s-2000s Innovation and Improvement
1950s and 1960s
Electronics began to be used soon after in asphalt production. By the 1950s and 1960s, large parts of the asphalt manufacturing and laying process was automated. Electronic leveling and screening controls, and extra-wide finishers that could lay two lanes at once came into use in the late 60s.
Asphalt construction in the 50s was a big, dirty, dusty business. By the 1960s, air pollution became a major concern. Asphalt manufacturers began to become more environmentally friendly — and thus more efficient.
The 1970s and on
The main thrust of asphalt production in the latter-half of the 20th century was quality improvement. Economies of scale had been effectively achieved with automation and mechanization, so quality became the new focus.
Recycling asphalt was actually very common in the early 20th century, but the rise of new asphalt refineries in the 1950s made it cheaper to get new than recycled. The 1970s energy crisis showed the importance of reusing existing materials. Recycling asphalt became common again. To this day, asphalt is the most recycled material in the US.
In 1986, the National Center for Asphalt Technology was founded. The NCAT is the top location in the world for research and development. Thanks to centralizing research and science regarding asphalt, the last 50 years have seen asphalt pavement start to be used in a huge variety of ways and locations.
High durable mixtures are used for runways and loading docks. Asphalt has been consistently improved to be more efficient, environmentally friendly, longer lasting, and smoother.
Asphalt today bears little resemblance to its first uses seaming together baskets, or even its first uses on roads in the US. However, looking back, the progress made in this ubiquitous substance is astounding, especially over the last 100 years.
Do You Need Asphalt Work Done?
If you have a paving project in your near future, look no further than Reliable Paving. We are a full-service asphalt paving contractor who can help you with each step of your project. Whether you want something new built, maintenance performed, or you have questions about a project, contact us. With over 35 years of experience, and a team of over 200 people, no job is too big, or beyond our abilities.