As I was watching some YouTube videos about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, his experiments with concrete were explored, and I asked myself the question: Who Invented Concrete? Obviously. After writing a few articles for this blog, I noticed that the answer is not just one person. It’s not that easy. So, I invite you to join me in the past to discover the history of concrete.
What is concrete?
First, for those of us who are not in the know, what exactly is concrete? The Cambridge Dictionary described it as a very hard-building material made by mixing together cement, sand, small stones, and water. In short, it’s a really resistant composite material we are using to build houses and other structures.
If we go back in time, in the 1520s, concrete was used to talk about “that which is material or not abstract.” We had to wait until the 1650s for it to mean “a mass formed by concretion” from the literal sense of Latin concretus. But…
Who Created Concrete?
Some would say that the Egyptians did, as they were using a form of concrete to build pyramids around 3000 BC. There is a debate over the real first utilization of concrete, especially before the Egyptians did. An early form of concrete was found in the Göbekli Tepe temple in what is today called Turkey.
That said, concrete, as we are using it today, was used for everything by the Romans (around 300–500 AD). They used it to build the Colosseum, their famous bathhouses, roads, and the majority of their constructions. But for the Romans, it was not named “concrete,” it was caementis—or “cement” if you prefer. Their cement was not our cement, they did it the way we do concrete today. It’s confusing. Whatever their concrete recipe was, it was effective. The Colosseum is still here 2000 years later. The Pantheon too. Roman engineers perfected their mix (using volcanic ash), and it survived the fall of the Empire.
After that, during the Middle Ages, concrete was not used as much, and the recipe changed, mortar became in demand as stone was mostly used to build castles and churches. It made a comeback during the 15th century, but it was during the 19th century that concrete found a new life, a reinforced one.
Who invented reinforced concrete?
In the 16th century, a German found out that mixing volcanic ash called trass with lime mortar led to strong water-resistant material. Years later, this led the French and the British to use this recipe on buildings, and in 1793, John Smeaton was tasked to build a new lighthouse. He needed water-resistant materials and rediscovered how to make cement. This changed a lot in the construction business and, in 1824, Joseph Aspdin revised the recipe to create what is now called the Portland Cement, the basic ingredient of concrete.
In 1849, a Parisian gardener named Joseph Monier started making garden pots and tubs of concrete reinforced with an iron mesh. This reinforced concrete changed a lot, especially after California-based engineer Ernest Ransome popularized its use—first with the Arctic Oil Company Works warehouse in San Francisco in 1884, but especially with the Alvord Lake Bridge in Golden Gate Park, the world’s first reinforced concrete bridge, in 1889. His technique was what made the construction of the 16-story Ingalls Building in Cincinnati in 1903 possible, the first concrete skyscraper.
In 1891, another American inventor, George Bartholomew, constructed the world’s first concrete street in Bellefontaine, Ohio. In 1908, Thomas Edison (yes, that Edison) designed the first American concrete homes in Union, New Jersey.
During the 20th century, like the Romans, we are using concrete everywhere, to build houses, roads, and even our “Colosseum”—the first sports arena with a concrete dome was built on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1963. But reinforced concrete is not as durable as “Roman concrete.”
Maybe Romans didn’t invent concrete per se, but they apparently created the best version of it.
A more but very resistant material is Kevlar, and I wrote about its invention.