Black Gold: How Tarmac Transformed Society

Conor McNicholas

Without tarmacked roads, the modern world simply couldn’t function. The black stuff is a constant feature of our daily lives, but the first asphalted roads actually appeared in Babylon way back in 625BC—it took over 2,000 years for them to arrive in the UK. Our lives have been transformed because of it, shaping our environment and driving culture forward..

John McAdam, who loaned his name to tarmac, never produced asphalted roads. His innovative road surface was stone-based but hugely efficient to construct. When cars arrived, his surfaces kicked up too much dust, so road constructors started covering the roads in asphalt tar. Tarmac (short for tarmacadam, or tar-penetration macadam) was finally patented in the UK by Edgar Purnell Hooley in 1901. These hard-wearing surfaces enabled people to unlock the true potential of the new motorcar.

Did you know?

Asphalt, or bitumen, occurs naturally and is the semi-solid state of petroleum.

The road surfaces we know now are technically asphalt concrete—bitumen, concrete and small aggregate mixed prior to laying and rolling. But the term “tarmac” has become a generic term for transport surfaces. When we say, “The plane is on the tarmac,” it usually isn’t—it’s on concrete.

While it might feel like the UK is aching under ever more roads, it’s estimated that the actual percentage of UK land under tarmac is only about 1.5% at the most.

What Irritates you when driving?

Who irritates you most on the road? I’m sure you have a list. Well, insurer Admiral have recently released the results of a national survey on the subject.

Fourth most complained about are van drivers, with 34% of those polled saying they find them irritating. Next are cyclists, who annoy 36%. In second place are taxi drivers at 37%. And the most complained about? Elderly motorists on 41%. Even 22% of the over-60s complain about fellow oldies. As Admiral’s MD says, maybe it’s “because they tend to drive more carefully”. Indeed.