The Story of Asphalt
The story of asphalt goes far back in time – millions of years back. It started back when Earth’s surface consisted of a primordial soup teeming with microscopic algae and other small organisms. When these small creatures died, they sank to the ocean floor. Over time, these layers of sediment became buried deep below the earth’s crust and the pressure and heat generated from this geological process transformed the material into bitumen, the raw material used to produce asphalt.
Fast forward a few million years and this material began to seep up through the ground forming natural deposits of bitumen. Some of the largest deposits remaining today can be found in Alberta, Canada, southern California and Utah in the United States, Israel’s Dead Sea, Venezuela, and Trinidad & Tobago.
Bitumen has been used by humans for millennia. Archaeological discoveries in North America and Europe suggest that ancient man used bitumen to “glue” together tools. Biblical records tell of “tar and pitch” (bitumen) being used by Noah to waterproof the ark.
Ancient Babylonians began paving the way of the future for millennia to come. The first recorded asphalt road was built in Babylon during the reign of King Nabopolassar. The ancient Greeks used asphalt in various construction applications. The English word asphalt is derived from the Greek "asphaltos," which in Greek means "secure." The ancient Romans were renowned for their public water supply system and incorporated asphalt to seal their baths, reservoirs and aqueducts.
English explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh, discovered a "plain" (or lake) of asphalt on the island of Trinidad, near Venezuela. He used it for re-caulking his ships.
Scottish civil engineer, Thomas Telford built more than 900 miles of roads in Scotland, perfecting the method of building roads with broken stones. During this time, John Loudon McAdam invented the “macadamisation” process, using tar to bind the stones together, creating a hard and smooth surface. This produced "tarmacadam" pavements or tarmac as we refer to today.
Belgian chemist Edmund J. DeSmedt laid the first true asphalt pavement in the front of the city hall building in Newark, N.J., U.S.A. DeSmedt also paved Washington, D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue, 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.
Canada’s first asphalt paved roads were built in Ottawa, Ontario, and Edmonton, Jasper and Camrose, Alberta.
Throughout the millennia, asphalt has paved the way for better roads and infrastructure for civilizations across the globe. Asphalt’s long record of success makes it the time-tested, wise choice for paving.