A History Lesson in Concrete

Roman Concrete

While some of the most famous ancient concrete buildings come from the Roman Empire and were built as early as 300 BC, the use of cement, one of the main components of concrete, has been found over two thousand years earlier, in 3000 BC. According to Auburn University’s School of Building Science, cement and cementitious materials were used in the building of both the Great Wall of China and the Egyptian Pyramids[1].

Although it’s fairly common for people to use the words cement and concrete interchangeably, there’s a distinct difference between the two. In short, concrete contains cement. Cement itself is a mixture of limestone and other minerals, rocks, and metals which absorb water and act as a binding agent. Concrete contains cement as well as crushed rock, stones, and sand[2]. The mix of rock, stone, and sand in the concrete is called aggregate. Depending on the mixture of cement and aggregate, the characteristics of concrete can change dramatically. The concrete used by the Romans contained cement with volcanic ash and limestone which helped create an especially strong binding agent. In contrast, the most widely used concrete today doesn’t use volcanic ash, and is not nearly as strong[3].

Pardon the pun, but concrete’s history has been a little rocky. While it was widely used during the Roman Empire from 300 BC to around 470 AD[4], the secrets of building with concrete largely disappeared with the fall of the Romans. It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that cement was rediscovered. Portland cement, the most popular cement used in concrete today, was created in 1824 by Joseph Aspdin and named after Portland, England.

With the rediscovery of cement, the use of concrete rapidly grew as new public projects such as the Erie Canal and renovations in the Thames Tunnel started utilizing the material. Today, you can see concrete everywhere, from sidewalks and streets, to buildings, to reinforcements on cliffs and the bottom of your pool.

There are still a few things we could learn from the Romans when it comes to concrete. Even today, the Pantheon has the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. Not to mention the fact that Roman concrete harbors still exist in relatively good condition, considering they were built thousands of years ago. Don’t worry though. No matter what kind of advances we make in building materials and technology, Penhall always has the right concrete solution for you. We continuously invest in equipment and training to be ready for the needs of your project. While we can’t build you an unreinforced concrete dome to rival the Pantheon, we can flat saw, wall saw, core drill, utility locate, concrete scan, and break our way through just about anything.

We know more than just the history of concrete; we have the expertise and experience to get your job done.



[1] http://www.auburn.edu/academic/architecture/bsc/classes/bsc314/timeline/timeline.htm

[2] http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-the-difference-between-concrete-and-cement.htm

[3] http://www.history.com/news/the-secrets-of-ancient-roman-concrete

[4] http://matse1.matse.illinois.edu/concrete/hist.html