The Car Coach: History of the road
Over the years the roadways have evolved like our cars have evolved. Let’s take a closer look at what our roads used to look like and what they look like today.
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Most of us give very little thought to the roads we drive on every day. We tend to take them for granted — at least until they are closed for repairs, washed out in a flood, or in some way rendered impassable.
Around 800 BC, the city of Carthage, on the northern coast of Africa, began to use stones for paving roads. Although they may not have been the first to pave their roads with stones, they were among the earliest. Some people believe that the Romans imitated Carthaginian techniques.
Without a doubt, the champion road builders were the ancient Romans, who, until modern times, built the world's straightest, best engineered, and most complex network of roads in the world. At their height, the Roman Empire maintained 53,000 miles of roads. These byways were composed of a graded soil foundation topped by four courses: a bedding of sand or mortar; rows of large, flat stones; a thin layer of gravel mixed with lime; and a thin surface of flint-like lava. Typically they were 3 to 5 feet thick and varied in width.
Their design remained the most sophisticated until the advent of modern road-building technology in the very late 18th and 19th centuries. Many of their original roads are still in use today, although they have been resurfaced numerous times.
Several centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, 18th century England developed a method of road building that required digging a trench, installing a foundation of heavy rock, and then surfacing with a 6-inch layer of gravel. During construction, the center of the road was raised, producing a crown that allowed water to drain off. Eventually, a carpet of finer grained stone was adopted throughout Europe.
As European settlers migrated across the Atlantic to the Americas, they found themselves faced with an almost total lack of roads; in Europe they had at least the Roman roads to use as a foundation for rebuilding. In America there were only Indian trails, and while they were long and quite extensive, they were also very narrow, allowing only for single-file passage of foot traffic.
America's earliest roads were not easily accessible even for horses and wagons. The advent of the motorcar changed the road for everyone.
In 1896, the Department of Agriculture opened an Office of Road Inquiry to assist in the development of better roads.
The roadways we see today utilize recycled rubber and pavement so that roads are smoother. Expansion joints have also been added to protect the life of the roads.
Just about any drive we take today provides concrete evidence that road is constantly evolving. I can't help but wonder what our roads will be like 100 years from now.