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The History of Concrete And How It's Shaped US Cities

Erickson AsphaltMarch 8, 2023

Concrete. It doesn’t get much tougher than this. It’s a building material we’re all familiar with, whether it’s on the construction of roads, pavements, or (dystopian apartment blocks), it’s a substance that’s a part of all our lives. 

How long do you think it’s existed? 

If you asked around, a good many people might think it’s something that was only invented in the 20th century or perhaps a bit earlier than that. The answer might really surprise you, as we’ll uncover… 

What about how it’s shaped our lives (and the cities in the USA) since it became widely used? 

It’s one of those things that we might think we can manage without as we edge toward a more sustainable way of life, but we really can’t!

Forming concrete plans

The first kinds of concrete-like structures were put together by the Bedouins and Nabataea traders. These were the folks who occupied, developed, and controlled a small empire in the regions of southern Syria and northern Jordan. So this actually takes us back to 6500 BC (marginally older than a Bob Hope joke…) 

These clever inventors were the first to discover the properties of hydraulic lime. This is a form of cement that actually hardens underwater and just under a hundred years later they were able to build kilns that could supply mortar to construct of rubble-houses, floors, and even waterproof cisterns, which helped them survive and have water in the barren desert conditions. 

Their knowledge led them to understand that a concrete-type mix needed to be kept as dry as possible. Any excess of water would lead to weaknesses in the finished product. They even had special tools for tamping down the concrete structures! They realised by doing this that it produced a gel-like substance (a bonding material produced by the chemical reactions) that would hold the aggregate together. Clever! 

To find the next civilization that really got its claws into concrete, we have to travel further forward in time….

What did the Romans ever do for us…?

Well, to paraphrase Monty Python they gave us…aqueducts, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, and…

Would it surprise you to learn they gave us a more modern form of concrete? Xerxes and Reg never mentioned that!

So although our inner city concrete jungles are a modern invention, you’d have to go as far back as The Romans to find the first uses of this strong, sturdy material in a more civilised society. 

The clever innovators of the era used it to build everything from aqueducts to bathhouses and it’s even believed to have been used in the construction of the Coliseum. 

Now, here’s the clever thing. The ‘recipe’ for concrete they used meant it’s been able to stand the test of time and make it through thousands of years, and still be recognisable. 

However, the form of concrete we use today (that’s to say the reinforced stuff) is fine for about a hundred years or so, with repairs to it. Although it lasts, it’s unlikely to make it through everything the same structures those clever Romans made. 

What was their secret? Well, it seems to be the use of volcanic ash, which is also known as Pozzolana.

The recipe the Romans used was developed by an architect called Vitruvius, way back in the first century BC. This involved the aforementioned pozzolana and also had chunks of volcanic rock mixed into it. 

These clever individuals also managed to manufacture a stronger form of the marine concrete that the Nabataeans had developed and they used it in the construction of piers. According to scientific research published in the last few years, adding sea water into the mix actually made the concrete stronger and last longer.

Possibly the longest surviving example of Roman concrete is the Pantheon. And if you stand back and look at it today (whether in person or online images) it looks extremely modern and it’s lasted for nineteen centuries!

Amazing stuff. 

But guess what? Once the Romans (who obviously didn’t do much else for us after the fall of their empire) left, it was nearly 1400 years before concrete was used again in any meaningful way.

The French: Giving Concrete a solid foundation

You have to fast forward all the way to the 18th century in Devon, England to find the next credible mention of something concrete related (and it wasn’t Mrs Miggin’s scones from Ye Olde Tea Shoppe). 

Look to a lighthouse called Smeaton’s Tower in this beautiful county, of which construction finished in 1759. It’s a typical Eddystone Lighthouse, but its build pioneered the use of hydraulic lime in concrete and also used pebbles and powdered brick as a form of aggregate. 

It was a bit further into the future before concrete got even more popular. So, who invented the modern form we’re most familiar with?During the 19th century the French pioneered the form of concrete we know today. The recipe we use in modern times contains a mixture of lime-based cement, water, and sand, and includes an aggregate like gravel. 

The first reinforced concrete house was built in 1853 by François Coignet and the first bridge to be built using the same material was constructed in 1875 by Joseph Monier

Welcome to the Concrete Hotel, California. 

After the mid-1800s we need to look at America to find where concrete really took shape and helped form the cities we know and love. 

It’s believed that one of the earliest uses of concrete in America (that we know about) was as part of the construction of a Greek revival house in New York City in 1835. 

By the mid-1850s, the editor of the New York Tribune, a man named Horace Greeley built a three-and-a-half-story barn structure in upstate New York. It was this building that ended up convincing other inventors to perhaps think about using concrete to build houses. 

In the latter stages of the 19th century, an American inventor by the name of George Bartholemew put together the world’s first concrete street in Ohio. Testament to its strength, it’s still there today. 

Curious to know how strong it is? Check this fascinating fact out: a section of the concrete pavement won a prestigious prize for engineering technology at Chicago's World Fair in 1893. 

When this piece of pavement was tested at a later date, it revealed that the concrete had lots of trapped small air bubbles in it, which helped it attain a breaking strength of 8000 pounds per square inch. That, amazingly, is still a great deal stronger than most of the concrete we use today in buildings!

In fact, in 1976  a ceremony was held in which this construction was designated as a pioneering civil engineering landmark. The Mayor of the city at the time, William S. Meyer, is quoted as saying: "The successful blending of concrete into a street material of such strength and durability paved the way, literally, for the vast network of streets and highways that has made our modern transportation system possible."

We’re getting away with ourselves. Back to the late 19th century. Concrete became even more popular when a California-based engineer by the name of Ernest Ransome took the original recipe for the base material and poured it over iron and in later years, steel bars to improve its quality and strength. 

He first used this technique when building the Arctic Oil Company Works warehouse in San Francisco. Work on this was finally finished in 1884. 

Some five years later, he then went on to build the Alvord Lake Bridge in Golden Gate Park. The Americans claim this was the world’s first reinforced concrete bridge (although we think Joseph Monier might want to have a word at this point…) 

Sadly, the Arctic Oil Company Works warehouse was torn down in the 1930s, but Ransome’s bridge still stands and is still in working order.  

But, as always, there were bigger and better things to think about building. The Americans had a dream to start constructing strong buildings that could reach the sky. 

In 1903 the world’s first skyscraper constructed entirely of concrete was built. Called the Ingalls Building it was in Cincinnati and although Ransome had nothing to do with the construction of this particular building it wouldn’t have been possible at all without his method of reinforcement being used!

The San Francisco Earthquake

In 1906, after a devastating earthquake in the city of San Francisco, the inventor Thomas Edison felt that housing needed to be improved so it could withstand natural disasters like this one. 

He set about making proposals to mass produce concrete homes which would be resistant to natural disasters (as far as possible) but also pest and mold resistant too.

In previous decades, concrete houses had been produced but they cost a lot and were seen as something you could only have if you had the money! Edison proposed that his concrete structures should be made on an industrial scale which would help drive their prices down.

However, his project never really quite took off to the level he’d expected - taking ten years to complete the few that were made. 

We have to look to inventor Frank Lloyd Wright for the next truly successful foray into building with concrete. In 1908, he completed the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. Many architects and historians consider this to be the first ‘truly’ modern building. 

Lloyd Wright’s most famous work, Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania is notable for its cantilevers, which project out over the stream’s small waterfall. This feat of construction would never have been possible without the invention and strength of reinforced concrete.

Who Gives A Hoover Dam…?

Almost thirty years later, near Las Vegas, the thoroughly art deco looking Hoover Dam was built and for its time, it was easily the largest project ever to be completed using concrete. This was soon to be outgunned by the Grand Coulee Dam, situated on the Columbia River. 

As we moved further into the 20th century many of the most well-known buildings and structures in the USA were shaped by concrete. Notably The Guggenheim Museum, in New York City, which was constructed entirely from the material in 1956.

The USA’s public transportation systems, from the Metro in New York right through to the multitude of airports that connect the country to the rest of the world show that concrete continues to be part of our everyday lives and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. 

A concrete future?

So, there you have it. A brief history of concrete and how it’s shaped not only our world (from its inception by the Nabataeans) right through to its place in modern US society and some of the most well-known buildings it’s been used in. 

It’s come a long way, baby. What happens to this fascinating substance next? It looks like 3D concrete might be the future. Not sure? Well, it still remains the building material of choice for most construction workers and planners. 

Bringing in 3D printing technology might just be able to offer it a new lease of life. In the US, their military plan to develop 3D-print troop barracks, and over in Europe there are plans to start developing the world’s first 3D-printed concrete houses. 

Taking us a long way from Edison’s original vision, it perhaps might be more possible and affordable this time. 

Whilst there are natural concerns about sustainable building and using materials that can be recycled and cost less to the earth, concrete remains a firm favorite (if you’ll pardon the final pun).