Concrete in Context: A Brief History of the World’s Most Important Building Material
One of the most versatile and widely used building materials, concrete seems like it has been around forever. In a way, it almost has – the earliest recorded usage of a concrete-like material dates to 6500 B.C. Since then, the technology used to create concrete has improved considerably. Today, you’ll find it in the buildings we live in and the infrastructure we use every day. Keep reading to learn more about when concrete was first made and how it evolved over the years and became one of the most critical substances known to the world.
Early Cement and Concrete
The history of concrete is tied to the history of cement – a binding material, typically derived from limestone, so important to making concrete that the two terms are practically synonymous. Middle Eastern builders knew of the importance of limestone as early as 1300 B.C., when it was used to coat the walls of buildings, becoming hard with exposure to air. Around the same time, Ancient Greeks began using a mixture of lime and pebbles to create stronger palace floors.
Later on, concrete was used extensively to build ancient Rome, leading the period between 300 B.C. and 476 A.D. to be known as architecture’s concrete revolution. From the Pantheon dome to the Pont du Gard aqueduct, many of the region’s most prominent tourist attractions make use of an early form of concrete – and are still standing today.
Building the Modern World
Concrete use declined significantly after the fall of the Roman Empire, and it wasn’t until the 18th century that it regained favor. This was due to two important innovations, the first of which was the work of John Smeaton, who rediscovered many Ancient Roman cement-making techniques, and pioneered a method for producing hydraulic lime.
Seaton’s work set the stage for what is almost certainly the most important event in the history of concrete: the 1824 invention of Portland cement. Affordable to produce and easy to work with, Portland cement is the most common type of cement to this day, and a major component in nearly all concrete used in construction and other applications.
Concrete masonry blocks were first used in the 1830s, while the 1849 invention of reinforced concrete further expanded its possibilities. Concrete played a role in the United States’ recovery from the Great Depression, as it was used in many public works projects during the 1930s and ‘40s – most notably, the building of the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams.
Today, our advanced understanding of material science has led to the use of various additives and aggregates to create concrete with a wider range of properties than ever before. Next time you pass by a concrete building, or park your car on a concrete driveway, remember – none of this would be possible without a seemingly simple innovation that dates back thousands of years.