The Unknown History of Asphalt
Asphalt, the material responsible for creating those slick black driveways and roads, has a long and winding history beyond its use in current residential and highway construction. It occurs naturally in asphalt lakes and in a mixture of sand, limestone, and asphalt rock.
Believe it or not, the use of liquid asphalt dates back to 3,000 B.C., when the Sumerians first recorded its utilization. Ancient Mesopotamians used it to waterproof temple baths and water tanks, too. It’s even said that the baby Moses’ basket was waterproofed with asphalt. However, paved road surface pavements themselves didn’t begin until 312 B.C. when the Romans created a roadway network totaling more than 62,000 miles.
It took centuries more for modern man to realize the potential of the paved road. In the 18th century, Englishman Thomas Telford began constructing roads using an unbound aggregate to assist horse-pulled cargo travel through routes more efficiently. Amazingly enough, Telford was blind but still built miles of roadway throughout his lifetime.
The complete use of asphalt on roadways, however, didn’t begin taking place until the 19th century. The Champs-Elysees in Paris received the first modern use of asphalt with asphalt blocks in 1824. By 1872, Belgian immigrant Edward de Smedt engineered a modern “well-graded” asphalt that was used on major roads in New York City and Washington D.C.
Today’s commonly used asphalt is acquired through processing crude oil. Essentially, everything of value in the crude oil is removed and put to good use, while the remains are made into asphalt cement to be used for paving purposes. This asphalt is mixed with a binder and mineral aggregate.
Though we take this feat for granted, asphalt covers nearly 95 percent of America’s paved roads, parking lots, driveways, racetracks, and even airport runways. It’s smooth, durable, and reliable.