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The History of Concrete From Prehistory to Modern Times

The History of Concrete From Prehistory to Modern Times

Without concrete, the developed world would look radically different. All types of infrastructure and buildings are constructed with this miraculous material, from sidewalks and roads to foundations and buildings.

While commonplace in modern life, this building material has a long and impressive history that began thousands of years ago, even before the Egyptian pyramids. Its history spans through the time of the Romans’ unprecedented structures and reaches forward into modern construction.

This post takes a look at the history of concrete, how it came to be, and how it played a part in creating the great cities and monumental buildings of the world.

The History of Concrete Timeline

Prehistory

12,000,000 BCE: First deposits of cement compounds formed

The earliest evidence of concrete that we know of was found in Israel. Reactions between limestone and oil shale during spontaneous combustion caused natural deposits of cement compounds to form. These deposits were discovered and described by Israel geologists in the 1960s and ’70s.

10,000 BCE: Earliest limestone structure

Limestone — also often called “lime” — plays an early role in the story of concrete, as the base ingredient in cement, and it’s been used for millennia. Predating another massive stone temple, Stonehenge, by 6,000 years, the Göbekli Tepe in modern-day Turkey was the earliest known limestone structure. Limestone made up the T-shaped pillars of this temple, which were built and carved by prehistoric people who had not yet developed metal tools or even pottery.

With no evidence to support the idea that people lived on the summit of Göbekli Tepe itself, archeologists regard it as a historically significant place of worship — mankind’s first “cathedral on a hill.” The people who created and used the structure were likely inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent, a mild and farmable area spanning the land from the Persian Gulf to modern-day Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.

Just as this event marks a step forward in humanity’s evolution, concrete continued to evolve, too.

6500 BCE: Desert cisterns

The first concrete-like structures, secret underground cisterns for storing scarce water, were built by Nabataea or Bedouin traders who developed a small empire in the desert oases of southern Syria and northern Jordan. Some of these cisterns still exist in those areas today.

5600 BCE: Pre-concrete floors

In the former country of Yugoslavia, in the area of Lepenski Vir along the Danube River, huts were found in the mid-1960s with a semblance of concrete floors, dating back to 5600 BCE. The lime cement that was used probably came from a deposit upriver and was mixed with sand, gravel, and water to resemble concrete mixtures of our time.

Ancient

3000 BCE: Ancient Egyptians used mud and straw to bind bricks

One early predecessor to concrete was a building material created by the ancient Egyptians from mud and straw. They used this to bind bricks to use in construction. Another bonding agent used at this time was mortar made from gypsum and lime.

mud and straw bricks

2500 BCE: Concrete-like materials used in building the Great Pyramids

2500 BCE marks the next major advance in concrete’s history. Some sources report that a burnt gypsum mortar or lime concrete cementing material was used to construct the Great Pyramid at Giza.

The earliest known illustration of concrete use in Egypt dates to about 1950 BCE, a mural on a wall in Thebes.

1000 BCE: Grecian tombs built

Some archaeologists theorize that the introduction of concrete to society helped create the first communities of people outside of worship activities. The Peloponnesian tombs in Greece, built over 3,000 years ago, signify this.

Burying the dead, let alone constructing tombs for them, shows that civilization was beginning to form and revolve around a stable area, a change from the lifestyles of more nomadic hunter-gatherers.

600 BCE: Concrete hardening under water

The Greeks discovered a chemical reaction that changed the ways concrete could be used. By mixing a natural pozzolan, found on Santorini Island, which contained silica-alumina with lime, they created concrete that would harden under water as well as in the air. They used this material to create protective coverings on structures made of unburned brick.

The Greeks also created a predecessor to concrete that consisted of broken up stone with a mortar of lime and sand to bind. But this mixture wasn’t strong enough to be used for serious building purposes.

300 BCE: The Great Wall of China Began Construction

300 BCE marks the start of the construction of The Great Wall of China. It continued to be built and improved over the course of many years and dynasties.

the great wall of china

200 BCE: Romans used volcanic ash to create concrete

Around 200 BCE, the Romans discovered a similar chemical reaction to the Greeks when they mixed volcanic, pozzolanic ash with lime. The silica, alumina, and iron oxide in the ash reacted with the calcium hydroxide in the lime, forming sturdier concrete. This improved concrete could also hold up when submerged in water, something that previous building materials, like plaster made from lime and sand, couldn’t withstand.

2 BCE: Roman concrete was developed

Though the use of mortar, made of sand, lime, and water, as a bonding agent had already existed in ancient masonry by this time, the Romans innovated through their use of volcanic Italian sand, or “pozzolana.”

When Roman builders added pozzolana to their mortar mixture in place of regular sand (and sea water, which seems to increase concrete’s strength over time, instead of fresh water), they realized that the resulting mortar was significantly stronger and more durable. It could also set under water, something that wasn’t possible with previous materials.

Though concrete wasn’t considered to be aesthetically pleasing, and Romans often plastered over it with brick and tile, it completely changed the structural possibilities of Roman architecture, initiating an architectural revolution. Since concrete retained the shapes of molds, builders could be much more creative in their designs. Many of these structures were so durable that they still stand today.

70 CE–80 CE: The Colosseum was built

The Colosseum in Rome was built on an artificial lake, part of Emperor Nero’s palace (who ruled from 54 to 68 CE). It was built because of Emperor Vespasian (who ruled from 69 to 79 CE), who wanted to construct the largest theater in the world. Originally called the Flavian Amphitheater, it became known as the Colosseum during the Middle Ages.

The Colosseum contains more than 50,000 seats and 76 archway entrances, corresponding with the seats. About a third of the structure is still standing today.

colosseum in rome

118 CE–128 CE: The Pantheon was built using unreinforced concrete

Rome’s Pantheon, soon to celebrate its 1,900th birthday, is as sturdy as ever. The temple’s unreinforced concrete dome was twice as wide and high as any dome ever created at the time, spanning 143 feet with its famed “oculus” in the center. Its mammoth weight is buttressed by incredibly thick concrete walls and eight barrel vaults, all reinforced with brick — but no internal support.

Today’s engineers wouldn’t dare build an unreinforced dome of that size, and they may never know the secret to the Pantheon’s enduring stability. We do know that Emperor Hadrian’s engineers adjusted the concrete recipes, using more volcanic ash than rock to make the dome lighter, and more rock aggregate in the walls for heavier reinforcement. But when the Roman Empire fell in 476 CE, the unprecedented Roman recipe for concrete was lost to the world.

the pantheon

300 CE–500 CE: Roman architecture

Volcanic ash found near Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius was used to thicken a mixture of kilned limestone, ground-up rocks, sand, and water — allowing the Romans to build ramps, terraces, and the roads that eventually connected the whole empire. Pouring the mixture into molds soon allowed builders to create vaults and domes, as well as the arches of the empire’s iconic aqueducts and bathhouses. Roman concrete has endured earthquakes, lightning strikes, crashing sea waves, and thousands of years of weathering.

Early Modern Period

As it sometimes happened in the earlier eras of civilization, practices and innovations that became part of society for a time were poorly recorded or lost. This happened with the creation and use of concrete cement, but it was rediscovered more than 1,000 years later. Our timeline shows how concrete continued to evolve after its rediscovery during the early modern period.

1500s: Giovanni Gioconda’s concrete bridge attempt in the Renaissance period

Similarly, Giovanni Gioconda, an Italian friar trained in architecture and archaeology, tried and succeeded to emulate concrete cement. The fact that it was hydraulic, or able to harden under water, was his clue to try mixing lime with pozzolana, something that he read in Vitruvius’s On Architecture.

Gioconda’s first attempt to use concrete was in the Pont Notre-Dame Bridge. Though it held for a time and stood as the only attempt at concrete construction during the Renaissance, it was ultimately demolished because it couldn’t hold the weight of houses built on top of it.

1700s: Discovery of trass

A bricklayer in Andernach, Germany, tried mixing volcanic ash called trass with lime mortar. The resulting material was water-resistant and strong — and the chain reaction started by the discovery would lead to the creation of modern cement.

In the 17th century, the Dutch (who were already adept at building in water) sold trass to France and Britain for use on buildings that required waterproof properties. The two rival countries immediately began competing to create their own hydraulic building materials.

1759: John Smeaton developed “hydraulic lime” which was a type of concrete

The first successful use of concrete was by John Smeaton in his reconstruction of the Eddystone Lighthouse. He rediscovered hydraulic lime, the first type of concrete ever invented, while preparing to construct the lighthouse, using it for its ability to hold up under water.

In the process — and more than 1,000 years after the secrets of concrete were lost — Smeaton rediscovered how to make cement. Before long, manufacturers started marketing his discovery as “Roman cement.” And the Eddystone Lighthouse stood for nearly 118 years (from 1759 to 1877), outlasting the rocks that eroded out from under it.

eddystone lighthouse

Modern Era

1824: Joseph Aspdin patented Portland cement

Joseph Aspdin created his patented Portland cement when he heated clay and limestone together and then let it cool. This resulted in the use of vertical shaft kilns in cement manufacturing, which would later be replaced by rotary kilns.

1843: The Thames Tunnel was the first large-scale application of Portland cement

The construction of the Thames Tunnel, led by William Aspdin, Joseph Aspdin’s son, civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Brunel’s father, used Portland cement in its first large-scale application. This major engineering project encountered many issues during its construction, but was completed and open to the public in 1843.

thames tunnel illustration

1849: Joseph Monier invented iron reinforced concrete

Joseph Monier, experimented successfully with pouring concrete over steel mesh. (Concrete and steel expand at a similar rate when they heat up, making them a perfect pairing). Monier patented several variants of his invention for use with railway sleeper cars, building slabs, and pipes.

This marked the invention of iron-reinforced concrete, for which Joseph Monier would receive a patent in 1867. Concrete alone is made by mixing together cement, water and aggregates. Reinforced concrete combines that with steel for increased tensile strength and durability.  Reinforced concrete is much stronger and more practical than when the unreinforced stuff. It can span larger gaps, allowing concrete to soar in the form of bridges and skyscrapers.

1880s: Prestressing steel patented

The process of prestressing steel was patented to make concrete stronger and allow engineers to use less steel and concrete.

1886: The first rotary kiln was created replacing vertical shaft kilns

The first rotary kiln was created for use in concrete manufacturing. Manufacturers wanted to replace vertical shaft kilns because they weren’t as economical and the quality of what they produced wasn’t uniform.

1889: Ernest Ransome patented reinforced concrete used in building the oldest surviving concrete bridge

California engineer Ernest Ransome began testing concrete and two-inch iron rods to see if the materials would bond. When they did, Ransome went a step further by twisting the iron bars to create an armature around which he could “build” concrete into any desired shape — an experiment which also worked. As a result, Alvord Lake Bridge is the oldest surviving bridge made out of reinforced concrete.

Today we call this system reinforcing bar, or rebar, although modern engineers typically use steel instead of iron, and Ransome’s new system, would be used early in the 20th-century for commercial buildings, roads, bridges, and even the first skyscrapers. Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright began to implement rebar concrete technology in modern architecture. Some of Wright’s most famous buildings — including Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, considered the world’s first modern building, and Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, his most celebrated work — were made of reinforced concrete.

alvord lake bridge

1891: First concrete street in America – Bellefontaine, Ohio

In 1891, a man named George Bartholomew built the first concrete street in America in Bellefontaine, Ohio. Today, previous concrete is being advocated as the best, and most environmentally friendly surface for streets.

1899: The most famous reinforced concrete bridge – Vienne River Bridge

The Vienne River Bridge in Chatellerault, France, built in 1899, is one of the most famous reinforced concrete bridges in the world.

1903: First reinforced concrete high-rise – The Ingalls Building, Cincinnati

In Cincinnati in 1903, Ransome’s system made possible the first concrete high-rise, the 16-story Ingalls Building. That neck-breaking height made the skyscraper one of the great engineering feats of its time.

Ingalls Building, Cincinnati” by Hhelvey is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

1913: First Ready-Mix delivery – Baltimore

Ready-mix” concrete was unheard of before its first delivery in Baltimore, 1913. Having concrete mixed in one place (a central plant) and then delivered by truck for use at a jobsite was a revolution for the concrete industry.

1915: Colored concrete – L.M. Scofield, the first company to produce color for concrete

The first company that created color for concrete was L.M. Scofield. Founded by Lynn Mason Scofield, the company manufactured products like color hardeners, color wax, integral color, sealers, and chemical stains.

1931: The largest-scale concrete project completed – The Hoover Dam

Though concrete had been used to create some impressive modern structures, none were as large at this time as the Hoover Dam. Located between Arizona and Nevada in the Black Canyon, the Dam became the biggest and most elaborate concrete construction project by this point in history, using over four million cubic yards of concrete (or five million barrels’ worth) in its construction. It was also reinforced by an infrastructure made out of steel pipes.

the hoover dam

1939: William Urschel created the first 3D printed concrete structure

In 1939, inventor William E. Urschel created his “Wall Building Machine,” an invention that used the technique of layered, horizontal slip forming to construct multistory structures that contained a self-supporting infrastructure. He used this to construct the first 3-D printed building from concrete behind a warehouse in Indiana.

1956–1992: The U.S. Interstate Highway System was built

During these years, construction of the U.S. interstate highway system was underway, ultimately completed in 1992. The project used concrete as a primary building material, creating safer roads that hold up better under the weight and pressure of vehicles. The creation of the highway system not only made travel safer and easier but also made it much faster, connecting the United States in an unprecedented way.

1963: Assembly Hall at the University of Illinois – first concrete sports dome

The first sports arena with a concrete dome was built on the campus of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1963. Known as Assembly Hall for decades, it is now called State Farm Center and looks like a flying saucer that seats more than 16,000 in a perfect concrete circle.

the state farm center

1970s: Fiber reinforcement method to strengthen concrete

Fiber reinforcement, in which glass, carbon, steel, nylon, or other synthetic fibers are mixed into wet concrete before pouring, was an innovation that made concrete stronger. Fiber reinforcement can be used to strengthen buildings as well as outdoor features from driveways, slabs, and sidewalks to swimming pools, patios, and decks.

1992: Tallest reinforced concrete building – Chicago

At 65 stories, the skyscraper at 311 South Wacker Drive in Chicago, known by its street address, was the world’s tallest reinforced concrete building at the time it was built.

1998: Silica fume was used to develop high-strength concrete buildings

Silica fume, a pozzolanic additive, was used to create very high-strength concrete. This material was used in the construction of Two Union Square and the Pacific First Center.

1998: Green, eco-friendly, concrete was invented

In the face of increasing concerns about the environment, Dr. WG of Denmark invented green concrete in 1998. What makes it greener than conventional concrete are the aggregates. Green concrete uses materials like blast furnace slag, recycled demolition waste aggregate, fresh local aggregate, and recycled concrete materials, which give it both a lower rate of shrinkage as well as better resistance to damage from fire and corrosion.

2006: Self-healing concrete was invented to heal cracks

In 2006, another major innovation in concrete came about: self-healing concrete. It uses a bacterial stimulant that secretes limestone, giving the material the ability to heal cracks and repair other minor damage. It’s also an environmentally friendly concrete option.

2022: 3D printing for residential construction

3D printing has come a long way since the “Wall Building Machine.” Building on the advances of the early 20th century, modern 3D printing combines concrete with wood framing for residential construction. These hybrid designs are both more affordable and produce minimal waste.

Concrete vs. Cement

Now that we’ve gone over the history, let’s talk about the materials themselves. Concrete and cement are often discussed in relation to each other, and their histories are heavily intertwined. But cement and concrete are not the same thing. Although the two words are often confused with each other, there’s one main distinction: Cement is an ingredient in concrete.

 

Concrete Cement
Ingredients Cement Varying combinations of limestone, clay, shells, chalk, shale, slate, silica sand, and blast furnace slag or iron ore
Mixture process Add water to the cement powder and mix with sand, gravel, or crushed stone to form it into a shape. Ingredients are crushed then heated at high temperatures and ground into a powder.

 

So, concrete is a mixture of this cement-and-water paste and a sand-and-rock aggregate. The paste coats the surface of the sand and rocks, binding them together into the concoction we know as concrete. In its soupy liquid form, concrete can be formed into just about any shape the builder wants — sheet, column, block, slab, arch, bowl, and so on. Once the water in the paste dries, the concrete becomes hard as a rock and retains that shape.

Cement generally makes up about 10 to 15% of the concrete mix. Nearly all types of concrete use Portland cement. It’s not a brand name, but instead a recognized type of cement that’s used widely across the industry (think “stainless steel” or “sterling silver”). Its originator, Joseph Aspdin, named his concoction for the high-quality building stones found at a nearby quarry in Portland, England.

The Future of Concrete?

Methods for improving concrete continue to emerge, including special treatments to prevent water from getting through to the steel. Other advancements in modern concrete respond to the increasing global attention being paid to sustainability: “Self- healing” concrete contains bacteria that secrete limestone, resealing any cracks that occur. The mix for “self- cleaning” concrete is infused with titanium dioxide, which breaks down smog, keeping the concrete sparkling white. Improved versions of this technology may even give us street surfaces that clean out the exhaust from cars.

The exact recipe the ancients followed to make their concrete has never quite been found. It’s clear to researchers, however, that the volcanic ash pozzolana played a crucial role in giving ancient Roman concrete its strength and durability. Researchers plan to use a comparable volcanic ash from the Californian coast to see if they can reproduce something like the concrete of the Romans.

If this happens, the combination of Rome’s secret concrete recipe and modern rebar engineering techniques just might revolutionize the use of concrete — and the world’s infrastructure and architecture — all over again.

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