A Brief History of Asphalt

625 B.C.

The first recorded use of asphalt as a road building material occurred in Babylon.Ancient Greeks were also familiar with asphalt. The word asphalt comes from the Greek “asphaltos,” meaning “secure.” The ancient art of masonry construction developed around the use of strong mortar from natural asphalt found in asphalt pools in ancient eastern Mediterranean countries.

Christopher Columbus landed off the shores of La Trinidad in 1498 and discovered the famous Asphalt Lake.  Sir Walter Raleigh on his third voyage to Trinidad happened upon the Asphalt Lake which would later be used on the Pennsylvania Avenue project in Washington, D.C. covering 54,000 square yards.  This successful project vindicated the quality of North American natural asphalt, making it no longer necessary to import rock asphalt from Europe.

Macadam roads became popular in the U.S. for rural road construction during the 1830s and 40s. Additionally, Belgian chemist Edmund J.DeSmedt laid the first true asphalt pavement in the U.S. in Newark, N.J. The Cummer Company opened the first central hot mix production facilities in the U.S. The first asphalt patent was filed by Nathan B. Abbott of Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1871. In 1900, Frederick J. Warren filed a patent for “Bitulithic” road pavement, a mixture of bitumen and aggregate (“bitu” from “bitumen” and “lithic” from “lithos,” the Greek word for rock).

World War I ended and the use of the automobile was steadily rising, but roads outside the city limits werefrequently too muddy or dusty for travel. To fix this problem, road engineers used oils and asphalt.

The era of the turnpike is an important milestone in road history. The 1920s and 30s brought about an increase in road usage. After World War II, full scale automobile production resumed along with major levels of road maintenance and new highway construction. Massive resurfacing programs began but could barely keep up with post war travel demands. By 1950, vehicle registration exceeded 40 million cars and 8 million trucks. In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act and launched the Interstate System to create an infrastructure highway program unmatched anywhere in the world.

By the mid-70’s, a national move to conserve energy and materials initiated a widespread interest in recycling of pavement materials. Asphalt is America’s # 1 recycled product.


superpavSuperpave was a $50 million product of the SHRP effort to improve the performance and durability of roads. Superpave incorporated performance-based asphalt materials with designated environmental conditions to improve performance by controlling rutting, low temperature cracking and fatigue cracking.

Roadways are principally constructed of either asphalt or concrete, but some roads are quieter than others. A traffic study by the World Road Association indicates that asphalt pavements are at least 4 dB(A) quieter than concrete pavements.

As our population, travel, and economic activity increases, there is more wear and tear on America’s roads, bridges, and public transit systems. The U.S. population has increased 23% since 1990 and the number of miles driven has increased 41%. The length of “rush hour” doubled in the nation’s urban areas from three hours in 1982 to six hours in 2005.

As a heavily used national resource, only half of the nation’s major roads are in good condition, based on an analysis of recent Federal Highway Administration data. The situation is worse in high traffic, urban areas where one in four roads is in poor condition. In 2007, these urban roads carried two-thirds of the nation’s vehicle traffic.