A brief look at how asphalt pavement has transformed the landscape
Today, asphalt paving has become a sight so common, we seemingly take it for granted. In fact, it’s so common that 96% of all paved roads and streets in America are asphalt. Given the enormity of that number, it might be hard to imagine a time when our cities and countryside weren’t, at least partially, shaped by asphalt paving.
However, it wasn’t too long ago when the asphalt road was so rare, it inspired wonder and awe. Take for an example, renowned author of Little House of the Prairie Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of a wagon journey through Topeka, Kansas in 1894:
“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… It was like magic.”
It’s amazing if you think about at it. Just a little over 125 years ago asphalt was so rare, it was described as being “like magic.” Compare that to today, when it has become so commonplace, we barely give it a second glance as miles and miles of it disappear beneath the wheels of our cars.
And so with that in mind, we thought it would be fun to explore a brief timeline of the history of asphalt:
625 B.C.: The First Recorded Asphalt Road
625 B.C. marks the first recorded evidence of asphalt being used in road construction. However, it is important to note that before that time asphalt had been a widely accepted building material, commonly used as mortar or water sealant.
500 B.C.: Ancient Greece Explores the Properties of Asphalt
Did you know, the word asphalt comes from the Greek work “asphatos,” which means to secure? This may have something to do with the simple fact that Greece took full advantage of asphalt’s building properties. More than just for roads, they used it in ship caulking, waterproofing, building walls, and even embalming mummies.
1595: Natural Asphalt Discovered in the “New World”
Long before Europeans ever stepped foot on shore, the natives of the “new world” had already discovered the advantages of using asphalt as an adhesive for constructing tools, walls, homes and, even paths. So, it should come as no surprise that Sir Walter Raleigh discovered a lake of asphalt when he arrived on the island of Trinidad in 1595.
1824: The First Modern Asphalt Road
In 1824, large blocks of natural asphalt rock were used to pave the Champ-Elysses, a wide boulevard in Paris. This event was a huge undertaking, ultimately resulting in the first modern asphalt road.
1870: America’s First Asphalt Road
The first application of asphalt paving took place in Newark, N.J in 1870. A product of Belgian chemist Edmund J. Desmelt, this modern equivalent of the asphalt paving we use today was put down in front of City Hall on William street.
1907: The Automobile and the Rise of Refined Petroleum Asphalt
Until about 1900, just about all asphalt used in the United States came from natural sources. However, as the automobile rose in popularity, an increased demand for better roads led to innovations in both producing and laying asphalt. This included making the switch to refined petroleum-based asphalt pavement, as well as the introduction of the mechanical drum mixers and spreaders.
1956: Congress Passes The Interstate Highway Act
With the passing of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, 51 billion dollars were awarded to states to improve their road construction. The largest public works project to date, this new bill encouraged the adoption of many new and revolutionary asphalt paving techniques and equipment, including electronic leveling controls, extra-wide finishers for paving two lanes at once and vibratory steel-wheel rollers.
1970s: The Energy Crisis and Recycled Asphalt
Today, with more than 70 million metric tons recycled each year, asphalt pavement is America’s most recycled product. The big reason for this was the energy crisis of the 1970s, which forced Americans to rethink the importance of conserving and recycling their natural resources.
2005: More Than 2.5 Million Miles of Asphalt Road
There is little doubt that asphalt has had a transformative effect on the American landscape. That fact became extremely clear in 2005 when the Federal Highway Administration reported that 2,601,490 miles of American roadways were paved with some variety of asphalt.
Today: Asphalt Roadways Continue Their Transformation
The asphalt road that Laura Ingalls Wilder encountered more than 125 years ago may bear little resemblance to the roads of today. However, it’s important to note that new advancements take place in asphalt paving and concrete repair on almost a daily basis. And so, it’s quite possible that in another 125 years, the future roadway may take on a shape and form that is barely recognizable by today’s standard.