Today the concrete industry is a billion-dollar industry. This building material is everywhere, from commercial structures to residential and public works projects to art installations.
Traditionally considered a rough but essential building block, now concrete takes the form of polished wonders, even gracing kitchen counters.
The history of concrete is just as dynamic as its modern-day applications. Quite frankly, that history is as notable as the evolution of global civilizations and empires, past and present.
How was concrete invented?
In the following article, I’ll answer this question, and how it evolved into the dynamic building material we see today.
Concrete today consists of fine and coarse aggregates, sand, cement, and water. This mixture can also contain admixtures.
The chemical admixtures help control how fast or slow the concrete sets. They also increase the concrete’s strength and how it handles extreme variations in the environment, like temperature fluctuations and gale-force winds.
The ancients made simple concrete with mud, straw, and water. They then took these materials and mixed them with crushed, burned gypsum or limestone (a clinker), and used the resulting mortar to adhere the stones together.
Although sometimes confused, concrete and cement are not the same material.
To make cement, you mix limestone, slag, silica sand, and other materials. You then crush and heat these materials and grind them into a powder. This cement is then added with the aggregates, sand, and water to create concrete. Roughly 10-15 percent of concrete is cement.
When was concrete invented?
The exact date isn’t known, but the major ancient civilizations worldwide are thought to have used it more than 6,000 years before the birth of Christ.
Where was concrete invented?
The earliest known use of the material was in 6,500 BC in what is now Jordan and Syria.
The Nabataea traders of that era created cisterns and housing structures out of simple concrete. However, experts agree that although they are one of the earliest societies to use concrete, civilizations in the ancient orient might have been first.
When was concrete first used?
To answer this question you need to go no farther than ancient Egypt and China for still-standing examples.
The Great Pyramids
The ancient Egyptians became master manipulators of mortar. Today, mortar and concrete are considered separate building materials, but in 3,000 BC, the lime and gypsum mortars were used like today’s concrete.
In fact, some 500,000 tons were used as bedding for the stones that made up the outside of the Great Pyramid. Now, much of that material has eroded from the steady sandblasting of the Egyptian desert.
In an unrivaled feat of ancient engineering, the great pyramids’ casting stones are set with such precision that their joints measure no more than 1/50th of an inch apart.
Great Wall of China
In the East, around the same time as the Pyramids’ construction, the Great Wall was under construction. The Wall is primarily a defensive structure. It was necessitated to keep out the invading Mongol hordes.
Interestingly, while the Ancient Egyptians used as their admixture burnt lime and gypsum, the ancient Chinese used sticky rice. Of course, the concrete mixture proved incredibly stable and resistant to external pressures, as evidenced by its still standing today. The Wall is so strong that it even proves formidable to modern-day demolition techniques.
Greek culture had developed the burnt lime cement that was used for their tombs in the Peloponnese. But the Romans of around 600 BC became the master builders of the ancient world.
The first concrete structures the Romans created are not like the ones we use today. It was cemented rock debris. They would pile stones and plug the gaps with mortar by hand.
To finish these simple Roman structures, they would pile cosmetic bricks inside and out. The bricks add little structural integrity but a lot of cosmetic appeal.
Later, the Romans took advantage of the different properties of volcanic sands to make concrete structures. Some sands gave strength and allowed the Romans to build big, like the Colosseum. Other volcanic sands helped to withstand the pounding and relentless assault of ocean tides and saltwater.
Today, the crowning achievement of the Romans’ mastery of concrete is evident in Rome’s domed Parthenon.
Sadly, Rome’s knowledge was lost to the West as the empire crumbled and the Dark Ages swept across Europe.
The Discovery of Portland Cement
While the concrete process was rediscovered in 1414, it took until 1824 for what we now call concrete to come into some semblance of recognizability.
The Englishman Joseph Aspdin named his perfected kilned chalk and clay mixture for the local Portland quarry that produced especially strong stone. Aspdin then added properly proportioned limestone and clay to the mixture for vitrification. Although augmented with modern materials, Aspdin’s Portland cement is still the basis for today’s concrete.
By the turn of the 20th Century, you can see whole buildings constructed of concrete, like the Ingalls building in Cincinnati, Ohio. You also find Thomas Edison and other innovators constructing concrete homes for the first time en masse.
By 1936, massive public works projects made from concrete, like the Hoover Dam, are erected. And in 1963, the University of Illinois erects the first concrete sports dome with Assembly Hall.
In the 1970s, manufacturers start adding microfibers to increase the tensile strength of concrete. This makes concrete even more durable, rivaling steel in its strength.
Today, thousands of concrete structures spring up worldwide each month.
Color and Creativity
Meanwhile, as builders refine the use of concrete manufacturing, artisans added their own spin. The use of color, polymer resin blending, and decorative techniques started in the 1930s. Today, polished concrete floors and countertops are highly sought after home decor.
One of the foremost artistic innovators of concrete is Brad Bowman. His use of textured, colored, and imprinted paving in the 1950s set a new standard for concrete use and sparked its popularity as a vehicle for artistic expression.
The History of Concrete Continues Today
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