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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

Road-building industry has interesting origin

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.

RestaurantHe 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 road-building industry.

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 roads.

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 John.

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 about John.

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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 John.

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 asphalt roads.

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

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