Just when you thought the world was going to go into uber-concrete mode, something happened. In the Western World, we call it the dark ages, the area following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Why the sudden history lesson? Because the reason we call it the Dark Ages, is that humanity took a massive backwards step in terms of liveability, culture and more importantly to us today, technology?
Concrete in the Middle Ages (500-1500 BC)
It wasn’t that concrete wasn’t used at all during the middle ages, it’s just that it was rare, and the architecture was not on par to what feats the Romans were performing. If it was used, it was also likely of a lesser quality and may have degraded before historians could find records of its building structures and remains.
It is believed that the Roman technique of making the extra strong concrete, using the volcanic ash or rock (pozzolana), was lost. Historians are yet to determine whether this was due to the fact that the information itself on how to perform this was lost, or that the Roman’s simply mined out their sources of the material leaving none available for following civilisations.
What little we know of the concrete that was used in the early Middle Ages (known as the Dark Ages) was that it took more of a basic form, reminiscent of the earlier concrete used by the Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Chinese, lacking the strength and sturdiness of the Roman’s formula. Again, whether this was due to the lack of knowledge or material availability, it is unknown.
In England, it may have been both. It wasn’t until the eleventh century, following the Norman Invasion, that historians saw a rise in the use of concrete, although still in its basic form. The Normans brought with them a special piece of architecture that is well known in the world of the middle ages…the castle. These Castles were large structures and required to be sturdy, and although built with stone bricks, a mortar strong enough to match was required. Eventually this led to more research into stronger mortar, leading to a stronger mix of concrete like materials. It should be reminded however that the people of the time were still in awe of the architecture left over from the Romans at the time. While the strength of the mortar increased, it was still just that, a mortar used to bind other materials. The English at this stage still didn’t use it as a building material itself, nor did they have the architectural skill of those who had inhabited their lands almost one thousand years before them.
The basic concrete methodology then got a quick upgrade in 1414 when old manuscripts were found. These scrolls, written by a Roman man – Pollio Vitruvius – outlined the Ancient Romans formula and methodology for creating Roman concrete and the secret ingredient of pozzolana (the volcanic rock or ash they had used). While this new formula was widely distributed, it took time and their was still the issue for many places having to source the material which was not widely available at the time. In France, it was used to build the pier of the bridge at Notre Dame, a well-known land mark still today.
The Eddystone Lighthouse
The Eddystone Lighthouse in Cornwall, England was a bit of a downer. Bashed and humbled by the waves and of the Celtic Sea and English Channel, it’s stone masonry was constantly under threat and requiring repair. One man, John Smeaton was tasked with undertaking the impossible, creating a light that would last the test of time. Smeaton knew that ordinary building methods wouldn’t do, given the harsh exposure to the see. IT also required a building method that could be managed in such a dangerous position while also, preferably, something that would set underneath water. This seemed almost an impossible task at the time.
The man however, was up to the challenge. He experimented with other materials that hardened, including clay that continued limestone. By pre-firing the material in bricks, then grounding it back down, it formed what is called a hydraulic lime, a material that allows it to set under water. He also developed a number of joining methods to secure the building to the rocky island and was largely heralded as the grandfather of civil engineering (he completed many more projects and developments outside of the lighthouse).
While Smeaton is credit with the foundations and basis for what would later be known as Portland Cement (the cement formula we largely use today) many others were experimenting at the time and it is likely that others had discovered similar methodologies and mixes in tangent. Shortly after a man by the name of James Parker form England would Patent a cementing formula. Its name was Roman Cement, reflecting the immense influence that the ancient civilization had on our modern architecture at the time.
As man reached the industrial age, more and more scientists, builders and engineered explored the different opportunities, mixes and methods for concrete. In fact, the formula we use today was not far away from being discovered. This formula had to be strong and easily malleable, while being able to be mass produced at a level that was demanded by an ever growing population and ever growing building industry. Fortunately for man-kind, it wasn’t too far around the corner…
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