Book Review: “Asphalt: A History”

By Chuck Hebb

In this book Kenneth O’Reilly recounts the history of asphalt, starting first as an underutilized natural resource to becoming an integral part in the advancement of civilization. Along the way, O’Reilly describes the many dualities that arise when looking into asphalt’s rich history. How something that can have such a positive impact can also contradict itself and have the exact opposite effect. I am only touching on the duality that struck me most interesting.

While telling this story, O’Reilly breaks this book into two parts. Part one describes life before blacktop. A story that starts in nature with its formation as the product of buried remains of dead organisms from millions of years ago then on to its early uses and finishes right before what is described as the blacktop dawn. Part two goes in-depth on how the use of asphalt as a building material has advanced civilization over the past 175 years.

Throughout the book, one of the major themes I noticed was O’Reilly’s connection of asphalt to death. The author makes this connection early on with the description of how asphalt is ultimately created. Other pre-blacktop examples given are descriptions of the wars waged over its control in early Mesopotamia through the end of the Roman empire. It was used to create weapons to fight these wars and the Egyptians use of it as an embalming fluid in their mummification process. Part two’s examples touch on the asphalts used in the world wars and on-road fatalities of both animals and humans alike.

For all the connections to death the author made, he also did a great job in showing how the product has been used to create major advancements in civilization. Asphalt’s usage in blacktop specifically helped modernize United States roadways and allowed for commerce to spread further than it ever had before. Once these reliable roadways were established, the bicycle and automobile eras took off. O’Reilly also points out that asphalt paved roads helped combat disease as animal excrement no longer had a place to collect and thus extended life expectancies in these towns and cities.

Though I only touched on one of the many dualities outlined within O’Reilly’s history of asphalt, I found the comparison of how something can be so closely tied to death but also have such a major impact on the advancement of human life to be very thought-provoking. I feel that anyone in our industry would find this book informative with the amount of history that is laid out. It does an excellent job of telling asphalt’s story from its very beginning as a natural resource excreted from the earth to how it has impacted civilization throughout time.

I would recommend this book to anyone within the industry looking to see asphalt’s growth from a product once underappreciated to one that is at the forefront of nearly everything we do.

Hebb works for All States Materials Group and took part in the Asphalt Institute EPIC Leadership Program.