Sunday, July 2, 2023

"The story of how asphalt came to define our highways, and why potholes are such a pain."

Very prosaic.

And here's a song with a very prosaic title, "A day in the life":

And four thousand holes, in Blackburn, Lancashire.

From Tedium:

One Bumpy Ride
The story of how asphalt came to define our highways, and why potholes are such a pain. The problem? Nobody wants to spend money on preventing potholes.  

Today in Tedium: In this age of questionable support for local journalism, one thing can be guaranteed: Some local reporter, somewhere, is writing a story about potholes. It’s a basic fact of life when it comes to journalism—lots of things divide us, but the things best that unite us are the things we can’t control, and potholes are high on the list, because they’re definitely not intentional. They may be the most frustrating side effect of one of the most common materials you probably never think about: asphalt (also known in some cases as bitumen). It’s everywhere, and today’s Tedium is going to tell you all about it. — Ernie @ Tedium

“The modern dustless, glistening road surface is a thing of beauty helping the road to attain a still higher destiny. A well-paved asphalt road is the greatest missionary of civilisation at our disposal to-day.”

— A line from Successful Asphalt Paving, a 1926 book by Basque engineer Pedro Juan Larrañaga that extolled the virtues of asphalt road. (The rest of the intro can be read here.) Notably, Larrañaga’s point gets a mention in the much more recent book Roads Were Not Built for Cars, which makes the point that the vehicles that first necessitated asphalt roads were bikes, not cars.

The turning point in asphalt’s history came in the late 19th century

On one level, you technically can’t invent asphalt. It’s a substance, a semi-solid variant or byproduct of petroleum, that occurs naturally on the earth, one that exists in a variety of forms, and has a largely solid structure but is effectively a very thick kind of oil. (It has a long history.)

But the gritty material that ends up on the street directly in front of your house? That required a lot of formulating and testing to get to the best of its abilities. And of course, it’s nice when you can just make your own rather than having to worry about finding a source for asphalt in the wild. (The La Brea Tar Pits?)

Used nowadays for both roads and in roofing materials (you can buy a one-gallon paint can of it, even), asphalt was initially culled from natural resources, but found its footing in the market thanks to a huge amount of engineering work put into place in the 19th century. (Long story short: It’s easy to generate asphalt as a byproduct of oil.)

The real turning point came in 1869 when, just a few years after the Civil War, a former cavalry general named William W. Averell tried to find a way to make it in the civilian world.

Around this time, Edward Joseph de Smedt, a Belgian immigrant who had experimented with different approaches to building asphalt while in France, became acquainted with the former cavalry general. De Smedt’s techniques were seen as highly innovative attempts to create a road that could stand the test of time, drew much attention abroad, and with Averell’s influence, that attention soon followed in the U.S....