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Monday, November 26, 2007

The Road More Traveled


This afternoon, I'll jump in the car and travel north on I-75 to the Tampa airport. There, I'll catch a plane that will be sitting out on the tarmac. And I will thank my stars for John Loudon MacAdam who made it all possible.

MacAdam died on this date (November 26th) in 1836 at the age of 80. He is credited with almost singlehandedly reinventing how modern roads are built. His name became synonymous with roads (macadam) and the tarred macadam became the tar-mac or tarmac.

But MacAdam did not start life with the goal of becoming a road builder. He was born in Ayr, Scotland in 1756. Orphaned by his father's death in 1770, he was sent to New York to live in the care of an uncle who ran a counting house. Apparently, young MacAdam did exceedingly well in his new work (where he was an agent for the disposal of war prizes). Not being a dedicated revolutionary, MacAdam chose to return to Scotland when the war ended in 1783 . He brought a considerable sum back with him for he was able to buy an estate with his earnings.

As he traveled the countryside in his new life as gentleman landowner, he noted the wretched condition of the roads and thought surely there must be a better way to build them. At his own expense, he built test roads where the surface was raised above the surrounding land with a structure constructed of a composite of increasingly smaller stones to give a stable structure and a convex top to shed water. Finally, the top surface was sealed with either tar or a slurry of gravel and sand to prevent water from wrecking the construction.

Over many years, (1798 - 1814) MacAdam traveled over 30,000 miles (at his own expense) to examine the roads of Britain. MacAdam got himself appointed the surveyor-general of the Bristol Roads in 1815 and immediately set about rebuilding the roads to his new designs. When other travelers noted how good the roads in Bristol were, they demanded that the roads in their own locales be improved using his methods.

MacAdam wrote two books on his methods. It seems that he was motivated more by an altruistic desire to improve his country than by money. His road building methods came to the United States in the early 1820's where they were employed in building the Cumberland Road.

So instead of taking the roads for granted or bitching about the potholes, today I'll say a "thank you" to John Loudon MacAdam. And then I'll head for the tarmac.

[Image from US Department of Transportation]

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