Professor Edward J. de Smedt invented modern road asphalt in 1870 at Columbia University in New York City after emigrating from Belgium. He patented it (U.S. Nos. 103,581; -2) and called it "sheet asphalt pavement" but it became known as French asphalt pavement.
A natural rock known as asphalt had been used to construct buildings for many years. In 1824 large blocks of natural asphalt rock were placed on the wide boulevard in Paris known as the Champs-Élysées. This was the first time this type of rock was used for a road.
On 29 July 1870, the first sheet of Edward de Smedt's asphalt pavement was laid on William Street in Newark, New Jersey. He then engineered a modern, "well-graded," maximum-density road asphalt. The first uses of this road asphalt were in Battery Park and on Fifth Avenue in New York City in 1872. Five years later 54,000 square yards of sheet asphalt from Trinidad Lake were used on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C.
Today almost all the roads in developed countries are surfaced with De Smedt's man-made asphalt. Asphalt comes from the processing of crude oils. The word asphalt comes from the Greek "asphaltos," meaning "secure". Everything that is valuable in crude oil is first removed and put to good use. Then what remains (hydrogen and carbon compounds with minor amounts of nitrogen, sulfur, and oxygen) is made into asphalt cement for pavement.
Not much is known about the life of Edward de Smedt and pictures of him are extremely rare - perhaps his fame has been occluded by such heady stars of the road construction industry as John Loudon McAdam and Thomas Telford, but experts on the history of road building will always have a special spot in their hearts for "Teddy" De Smedt, without whom our roads would simply not be the same today.
Ribbons of firm, well-drained, smoothly paved roads and highways are ready to take you and your family anywhere you want to go, thanks to the construction methods pioneered by three Scottish engineers and the invention Edward de Smedt's man-made asphalt. In the year 1900 there were less than 15 miles of paved road in the world. Today, we have millions of miles of paved roads and streets.
The History of Roads
Wherever you go in the world, and as far back as 4,000 BC, stone is the common ingredient in roads. Simple stone roads were often rough, uneven, and pitted with ruts and holes that filled up with rain and mud in the winter. It wasn't until the 1700s that the smooth, even roads we know today became possible. We have three Scottish engineers and their improved road building techniques to thank.
Although he was blind, John Metcalfe was able to design and build firm, three-layer roads. First he placed large stones on the bottom layer, then he took the materials excavated from the roadbed such as smaller rocks and earth and used them for the middle layer, and finally he spread a layer of gravel on top.
A second Scottish gentleman by the name of Thomas Telford designed a way to raise the center of the road so that rainwater would drain down the sides. He also devised a method to analyze how thick the road stones had to be to withstand the weight and volume of the horses and carriages that were common in his day. The last of the three, John McAdam, mixed the necessary road stones with tar. The tar "glued" all the stone together and created a harder and smoother surface for the carriage wheels to roll on. "Tarmacadam roads" became the standard used everywhere until the 1870s when asphalt took over. "Tarmacadam" was a mouthful, so eventually people shortened the word to "tarmac."
The History of Asphalt
The story of asphalt begins thousands of years ago. Asphalt occurs naturally in both asphalt lakes and in rock asphalt (a mixture of sand, limestone and asphalt). The ancient Mesopotamians used it to waterproof temple baths and water tanks. The Phoenicians caulked the seams of their merchant ships with asphalt. In the days of the Pharaohs, Egyptians used the material as mortar for rocks laid along the banks of the Nile to prevent erosion, and the infant Moses' basket was waterproofed with asphalt.
The first recorded use of asphalt as a road-building material in Babylon. The ancient Greeks were also familiar with asphalt. The Romans used it to seal their baths, reservoirs and aqueducts.
Europeans exploring the New World discovered natural deposits of asphalt. Sir Walter Raleigh described a "plain" (or lake) of asphalt on the island of Trinidad, near Venezuela. He used it for re-caulking his ships.
Thomas Telford built more than 900 miles of roads in Scotland, perfecting the method of building roads with broken stones. His contemporary, John Loudon McAdam, used broken stone joined to form a hard surface to build a Scottish turnpike. Later, to reduce dust and maintenance, builders used hot tar to bond the broken stones together, producing "tarmacadam" pavements.
Belgian chemist Edward J. De Smedt laid the first true asphalt pavement in the U.S. in Newark, N.J. De Smedt 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.
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.
During World War II, asphalt technology greatly improved, spurred by the need of military aircraft for surfaces that could stand up to heavier loads.
The National Bituminous Concrete Association (forerunner of the US National Asphalt Pavement Association or NAPA) was founded. One of the first activities: a Quality Improvement Program, which sponsored asphalt testing at universities and private testing labs.
U.S. Congress passed the Interstate Highways Act, allotting $51 billion to the states for road construction. Contractors needed bigger and better equipment. Innovations since then include electronic leveling controls, extra-wide finishers for paving two lanes at once and vibratory steel-wheel rollers.
The international energy crisis underscored the need for conservation of natural resources. Since that time, an increasing amount of recycled asphalt has been incorporated in mixes. Today, asphalt pavement is the world's most recycled material with more than 100 million metric tons of asphalt paving material is recycled each year.