little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped
Road-building industry has
By Paul Niemann
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[January 15, 2009]
Belgian immigrant Edward de Smedt, a professor
at Columbia University in New York City, built the first American
road paved with asphalt. That was in 1870 in Newark, N.J. Two years
later, he paved New York City's famed Fifth Avenue. Another of the
early streets that he paved was Washington, D.C.'s Pennsylvania
Avenue, which is the street where the White House is located.
He invented what he called
"sheet asphalt pavement." Today, nearly all of the paved roads in
the world are made from the material that Professor de Smedt first
used more than 135 years ago. Nothing too exciting about that, but
there's an interesting story about one of the pioneers in the
The first roads were built in modern-day Iraq in approximately
4,000 B.C., using stones as the main ingredient. As you can imagine,
roads made of stone tend to be pretty rough. Asphalt-based roads, on
the other hand, are processed from crude oils and result in smooth
In the late 1700s, there were three Scottish engineers who
pioneered the building of smooth roads. In this story we focus on a
man named John Metcalfe. John was born in Knaresborough, Scotland
(that's pronounced "Knaresborough") in 1717.
Dolly Benson was the only woman John had ever loved. Her parents
had arranged for her to be married, but not to John, who was out of
town at the time. When he returned, he found out about her upcoming
marriage, so he went to see her the night before the wedding.
Climbing the wall of her home, he proposed to her, and they eloped.
It was exactly how you would picture it -- he put a ladder up to her
bedroom window and asked her to marry him. So off they went, and
they lived happily ever after with the four kids they had together.
There's more to John Metcalfe's story, though, than his
relationship with Dolly.
John had served as a guide through Knaresborough Forest. Nothing
out of the ordinary here, though, until you find out more about
He joined the British army and was even in a battle. Again,
nothing out of the ordinary here, until you find out a little more
[to top of second column]
John Metcalfe began his road-building career in 1765 when he built a
simple three-mile road connecting two towns. By 1790, he had built
180 miles of roads in Yorkshire, England (which is where Yorkshire
pudding comes from). His major contribution to road-building was in
his method of using three layers, which consisted of large stones
for the base, road material such as smaller rocks and earth in the
middle, and a layer of gravel on top. His roads allowed the
rainwater to drain off better than roads built by his predecessors.
John became the first road builder to build a road over a marsh.
Nothing out of the ordinary here, until you find out more about
You see, John Metcalfe built his roads despite the fact that he
was blind! He caught smallpox when he was 6 years old, which caused
him to go blind.
I mentioned earlier that there were three Scottish engineers who
pioneered the building of smooth roads. What about the other two?
Thomas Telford was the first to raise the center of the roads to
allow rainwater to drain down the sides. He also figured out how
thick the stones would have to be -- this was before the invention
of asphalt-paved roads -- to handle the weight of horses and buggies
that were used back then.
The other Scottish engineer, John McAdam, mixed the stones with
tar to create a smooth road. His roads became known as "tarmacadam
roads" and were used until the 1870s, when they were replaced with
And "tarmacadam" is where the word "tarmac" comes from.
Paul Niemann's column is syndicated
to more than 70 newspapers. He is the author of the "Invention
Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at
Copyright Paul Niemann 2009