The History of Asphalt

We drive on it all the time — in fact, asphalt covers 94% of paved roads in the United States. It’s certainly something we could easily take for granted because it’s been a part of our landscape for hundreds of years and has been around in other places for thousands of years. Learn more about the (surprisingly!) interesting history of asphalt.

How asphalt came to be

The first record of asphalt being used for roads dates back to ancient Babylon. King Nabopolassar ordered that the road leading to his palace be paved for a smoother royal procession in about 615 BCE. Ancient Greeks also used asphalt — the word itself is Greek in origin. Romans then went on to adopt asphalt to seal water receptacles like reservoirs and aqueducts.

Later, when Europeans decided to explore the New World, they discovered natural deposits of asphalt. Sir Walter Raleigh found a “lake” of asphalt on the Island of Trinidad and used this natural resource to recaulk his ships and keep them waterproof as he sailed the seas in the late 16th century.

Using asphalt for roads

Although there were plenty of early examples of the use of asphalt, many decades passed before both European and American builders used it to pave roads — which were not always easy to build in the first place.  

A man in Yorkshire named John Metcalf paved miles of roads using an early method of asphalt paving, as did Thomas Telford of Scotland, about a hundred years later. It was quickly discovered that this method could withstand the wear and tear of traffic with little maintenance, while also improving drainage.

Asphalt comes to America

In the 1860s, builders began using asphalt mixtures in the US for sidewalks, crosswalks, and roads. In 1870, the first “real” asphalt pavement designed based on a French highway built 20 years earlier was laid in front of the City Hall in Newark, New Jersey. 

The same Belgian chemist who laid the asphalt in Newark also paved all 54,000 square yards of Pennsylvania Avenue. The durability of this pavement created by Edmund J. DeSmedt was as equally durable as any asphalt pavement imported from Europe. Builders quickly took notice of how this asphalt design could innovate road building and infrastructure growth.

Evolution of Asphalt

The introduction of automobiles and their growing popularity quickly prompted state and local governments to find ways to build better roads. The first central asphalt pavement production facility was opened in 1870. The most common method of laying asphalt was a unit mounted on a railroad car, but production remained costly and limited to locations surrounding these production facilities.

Until the 1920s, methods of asphalt paving shifted, but laying by hand remained the most efficient approach. Mechanical tools for paving were introduced, and tools like tailgate spreaders and concrete strike-off screeds were the most commonly used to quickly and efficiently lay asphalt paving. 

Asphalt fuels the “building boom”

An exponentially increased demand for asphalt happened during World War II, as military facilities turned to asphalt that could stand up to their aircraft carriers. Growth in the suburbs after the war triggered the State Highway Act, passed by congress in 1956 to fund $51 billion of state road construction costs. This demand also prompted innovations in asphalt paving equipment. Electronic leveling became common practice in the 1950s and extra-wide finishers for two-lane roads showed up in 1968. 

Better asphalt production plants also came about in the late ‘60s, as concern about air pollution grew. Construction of these plants shifted to minimize the noise impact on surrounding areas and any dust that was previously released into the air with older methods of asphalt production. New plants also helped to increase the output and meet growing demand across the country.

Asphalt paving today

Over the decades since, asphalt has been used in countless other applications, including on airport runways. Asphalt increased air passenger comfort, cut back on maintenance costs, and decreased construction time. Asphalt also became widely recognized as a tool to help environmental and water conservation, as this method of paving is optimal for facilitating drainage through to the natural soil.

The asphalt we lay today likely looks much different from the first version on Pennsylvania Avenue, but it still offers the same benefits. It’s durable, safe, and easily customizable to meet building and paving needs, along with being cost-efficient and environmentally friendly. Ready to see the asphalt difference? We may not have been around to lay the first-ever asphalt road, but we have years of experience that we want to use for your next paving project. Get in touch — let’s get started!