Asphalt, also known as bitumen, is a popular material in road construction, used as a binder for aggregate particles, creating asphalt concrete. Asphalt is a naturally occurring substance that comes as the semi-solid form of petroleum — a sticky, black and highly viscous liquid often referred to as pitch. Long before the founding of the United States, asphalt has served as a highly reliable building material, mainly due to its waterproof characteristics.
The following is a brief timeline of asphalt usage through the ages:
Builders in Mesopotamia begin using asphalt to waterproof water tanks and temple baths. The Phoenicians applied asphalt on the seams of their merchant ships. The Egyptians used asphalt as mortar for rocks laid along the banks of the Nile River; the basket of infant Moses had asphalt for waterproofing.
The Babylonians were the first to incorporate asphalt into their roads, as far as archaeologists know. The Romans used asphalt to seal their aqueducts, baths, and reservoirs. Ancient Greece also used asphalt in its construction, even coining the material’s name from asphaltos, which means, secure.
The Age of Exploration enabled the spread of asphalt usage to more territories. Walter Raleigh once described a plain of asphalt on the island of Trinidad, near Venezuela. His discovery of the material allowed for the re-caulking of his ships.
Edmund J. DeSmedt, a chemist from Belgium, laid the first true asphalt pavement in the US. Off the success of his project in Newark, New Jersey, DeSmedt was also tasked to pave Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. — the undertaking used 54,000 square yards of sheet asphalt.
The boom of the automotive industry led to the substitution of refined petroleum asphalt in place of natural asphalt. This shift in the paving process gave way to multiple innovations in road construction, prompting the emergence of anything from sealcoating services to mechanization.
The National Center for Asphalt Technology was established at Auburn University, Alabama. It provides a centralized, systematic approach to asphalt research, and is currently the world’s leading institution for asphalt pavement research.