Though asphalt and poured concrete have long been considered state-of-the-art for building roads, the rock-solid benefits of the old-school approach to surfacing have given pavers newfound popularity: They allow DIYers to form a heavy-duty surface without heavy equipment, one block at a time — just like early road builders.
Before paved roads, travel was a dirty proposition. Heels and wheels met with mud or dust, ruts and roots, potholes and puddles. Roads were essentially well-traveled pathways that had been cleared of trees, boulders and other obstacles and compacted through heavy use. To create cleaner, slightly more even roads, early street builders used stones or bricks. Where abundantly available, round rocks (called cobbles) were collected from rivers and fields and placed in beds of sand and gravel, sometimes with concrete mortar. The surface, albeit a bit bumpy, provided some traction and kept travelers out of the mud.
In the 18th century, roads began to incorporate blocks cut from quarried granite. Like cobblestones, they were set on a coarse sand base and grouted with sand or a tarlike substance. In regions where stone was not available, fired-clay bricks were used. And in places where both clay and stone were in short supply, some roads were paved with blocks or discs made of wood (which made for a much quieter ride through town).
During the mid-1800s, the popularity of bicycles began to drive further improvements in road surfacing. The League of American Wheelmen was organized in 1880, largely to lobby for tire-friendly roads. By the early 1900s, the automobile took over the primary use of paved roads and prompted the development of stronger, longer routes, leading to thousands of miles of highways. Asphalt and concrete became the standards for covering these vast systems of roads and endless acres of parking lots.
Meanwhile, as European cities began to rebuild after WWII, many incorporated stone and brick pavers into their streets. To meet the trend, German engineer Fritz Von Langsdorff designed interlocking shapes and offered better colorations for concrete pavers. With the development of machinery to efficiently manufacture concrete pavers, their use spread throughout Europe and to other continents such as Africa and Australia. North Americans first began to appreciate concrete pavers in the 1970s, and demand for them has steadily increased since.
Today, manufacturers are introducing new shapes and designs that allow more water to drain between the blocks and filter into the soil. And in a wonderfully full-circle development, eco-conscious companies have created composite pavers using (of all things) recycled tires. Centuries after it began, paver progress continues without a roadblock in sight.
Regardless of the surfacing material, roads require stability. During the early 1800s, Scotsman John McAdam determined that roads made of small angular stones in compacted layers were more stable than those made with large slabs of stone. The painting shown above by Carl Rakeman depicts the first “macadam road” built in America (around 1823).
HANDY FACT: Stuck on the tarmac
Tarmac refers to a 1902 patent by British surveyor Edgar Hooley, who noticed that a dirt surface covered with tar from a tipped barrel was sealed, smooth and dust-free. He combined the tar topping with a macadam roadbed and called the treatment tarmac.
Turnpikes were so named during the early 1800s in England, where landowners built roads and charged a toll for the public to use them. The roads were barricaded with long poles (or pikes), which were turned when the user fee was paid.