Early and Modern Uses of Asphalt

The asphalt of our modern roads may seem like a relatively new development, but the history of asphalt actually goes back thousands of years. According to a National Asphalt Paving Association (NAPA) article, through the years asphalt has been called asphalt pavement, blacktop, tarmac, macadam, plant mix, asphalt concrete, and bituminous concrete.

Today, it’s used for driveways, parking lots, roadways, airport runways and more. Asphalt’s use in the U.S. helped the country to grow as travel became easier and easier on the smooth, durable driving surface that asphalt provides. Explore the history of asphalt below.

Early Asphalt Use

According to the NAPA article, asphalt has been used in one form or another for thousands of years. Asphalt in the form of a mixture of sand, limestone, and asphalt, called rock asphalt, was used for tablets, roads, building, and more, such as an Akkadian Cuneiform Tablet from 2350–2150 BCE. The NAPA article maintains that “the first recorded use of asphalt as a road building material was in Babylon around 615 BCE, in the reign of King Nabopolassar.”

Furthermore, asphalt was used by the ancient Greeks and ancient Romans. The article maintains, “the word asphalt comes from the Greek asphaltos. The Romans adopted the word as asphalton, and used the substance to seal their baths, reservoirs, and aqueducts.” The uses for asphalt continued to grow throughout Europe and the rest of the world, such as when European explorers and conquistadors recognized natural asphalt deposits in the New World and immediately began to utilize it.

Modern Asphalt Use

Asphalt started really being used for roads in the early 1700s after the innovations of Englishman John Metcalf. His designs were built upon in the 1800s by Scotsmen Thomas Telford and John Loudon McAdam.

According to the NAPA article, asphalt came to the U.S. for use in roads, sidewalks, and other walkways after the Civil War. Belgian chemist, Edmund J. DeSmedt, is credited with pouring the first “true asphalt pavement” in 1870 in Newark, New Jersey and later Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C.

The rise in the popularity of the automobile, including the need for fast-traveling roads created by World War II, helped to increase the use of asphalt. Today, 94% of U.S. roads are paved with asphalt!