Asphalt is closely associated with modern life, but did you know it’s actually an ancient, naturally occurring material with a rich history?
The English word “asphalt” comes from the Greek word "asphaltos," which means “secure” (though, interestingly, the Greek term derives from even more ancient words that invoke joining and splitting). The asphalt used today is mostly refined, but asphalt can be found in its natural state in asphalt lakes and rock asphalt. The first known use of asphalt for anything was by the ancient Sumerians around 3000 B.C. as an adhesive for inlaying precious metals, stones, etc. Ancient people used it as for art, embalming, waterproofing, caulking, and mortar.
Asphalt pavement is the most known use today, of course. Its first recorded use as such was in Babylon a very long time ago, 625 B.C. However, its use was rare for centuries, becoming a truly viable option in the late 1800s. with patents being issued in Europe and the U.S. in the late 1800s, and the actual paving becoming prevalent in the early 1900s. As cars became more available, the asphalt paving industry grew exponentially. Innovations kept pace with demand, refined asphalt became the most commonly used form, and asphalt recycling was developed. These improvements keep coming, and various blends for durability, drainage, noise reduction, and regional concerns like snow and ice are now widely available.
Today, it’s estimated there are more than 55 million miles of asphalt pavement on U.S. roads alone, and the asphalt industry recycles more than 80 millions tons of asphalt annually to care for the current roads and create more as needed! The ancient Babylonians would likely be amazed if they could see what they started!
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