Issue number 19                                                                                                                                    
March 2018
It is perhaps the most everyday of any engineering artefact, so why has the humble road evolved into one of the most politically and emotionally charged? After all, even animals make tracks, and the tracks of our ancestors' feet underlie some of the world's longest and most ancient routes. No-one really invented roads.

Could it be that the very inevitability of the road's development as it follows its unbroken course from sheep track to motorway brings to the fore profoundly different attitudes to change of any kind? Picking a careful route, this month's newsletter attempts to take in views of both heritage and progress as we enjoy a quick spin along the road.
Roads from here to eternity... in both directions
Not many people would mourn the disappearance of queuing traffic on the A303 past Stonehenge... but possible solutions are fraught with complexity. Ancient sites, of course, indicate ancient roads - and the area's extraordinary archaeological heritage poses a challenge for any new route. Tom Fort's 2011 TV documentary, A303: Highway To The Sun, provides a fascinating history and is one of BBC4's most successful films ever. It's been broadcast 18 times to date but in case you've missed it every time - or simply want to see it again - you can watch it on vimeo here.

photo : copyright Salisbury Journal

Shaping the Future of England's Strategic Roads, the consultation on Highways England's initial report on the Government's ongoing Road Investment Strategy, was published in December 2017 and closed on 7 February this year - did you miss it? You can download the document here. If you're in the industry, chances are you already know what the process of investment in infrastructure, including consultation, consists of, but the general public tend to be less well informed... and therein lies a problem.

The gap between government and industry on the one hand and the public on the other is critical, argues the current (April 2018) issue of New Civil Engineer. No-one wants a return to the socially and financially costly road protest battles of the 1990s - so with tricky issues such as chronic congestion at Stonehenge to be solved, what are the alternatives?

The road protest movement is just one of many social and cultural themes knowledgeably dissected by Joe Moran of Liverpool John Moores University in his admirably wide-ranging study, On Roads (pictured below). In his final chapter, Professor Moran offers the following "demurral: not everyone hated the roads. In fact, whenever I talked to the people who used them... they seemed quite fond of them. Although we knew it was as guilty a pleasure as smoking..."
Almost a decade on, cultural historian Joe Moran's 2009 publication (above) remains hard to beat as a witty, readable, fact-filled and frequently poetic examination of the (modern) history of the British road. Treat yourself to a copy and add unexpected texture and interest to many a wearisome commute or traffic jam.

photo : copyright engineering timelines
...and you get there in the car."

So, in 1940, wrote American author, E. B. White, remembered internationally as the creator of children's classic Charlotte's Web but, during his life-time, well known for his incisive essays and books for adults as well. It was 17 years before Jack Kerouac published On The Road, his hymn to the mobile "Beat" lifestyle, but the enduring mythology of the American road-trip was already well established. Huntington curator of Western American History, Peter J. Blodgett summarizes the origins of the American road trip in this knowledgeable post for Time online, while Magnum photos' site provides a series of gorgeous photo essays on the subject from across the decades.
If you're going to go the full American and take a road trip across 3,000 miles of raging slab, you may as well start with a classic - and take in some of the continent's most stunning scenery while you're at it. The internet is awash with material for would-be road-trippers: this post from will whet your appetite.

photo : copyright adobe stock via
It's clear that attitudes to roads, as much as other cultural artefacts, vary dramatically between countries, and Britain's roads - unlike its innovations in other areas of engineering - are rarely credited as a source of national myth-making or civic pride. Perhaps that's why, although it is a land of museums, Britain appears to lack any institution dedicated specifically to the history of its roads (reader, do contact engineering timelines if we've got that wrong - we'd be delighted to hear from you!).

That honour goes to Norway, with its Norwegian Road Museum in Lillehammer. As a country with one of the world's remotest roads to its name (the road to Longyearbyen on Svalbard Island), perhaps there's less national ambivalence about their usefulness.

Also bang-on theme is the Estonian Road Museum, located in an old post office and rated as "one of the 21 most interesting places to visit in South Estonia", if any readers are in the area. The link between the post office and the roads is, of course, significant...

Let's spare a thought, then, for the post and its pivotal role in the development of road infrastructure - in the Roman Empire, in Thomas Telford's Scotland and in the USA - in fact, all over the world. In 1830, in Britain, the Royal Mail awarded the licence to carry mail to the new railways, bringing an abrupt end to the dominance of the post road; again, much of the world was soon to follow. More recently, modern telecommunications have eroded the need to transport written letters as surely - though not as quickly - as the trans-continental telegraph killed the Pony Express in 19th Century America.
"Gee-up, Ned, we've got almost 2,000 miles to cover!" America's 19th Century Pony Express was a short-lived, loss-making venture that has punched well above its weight in Wild West mythology. Want to see what those roads look like today? You can join the re-ride - yes, really! - from 20-30 June 2018, but you have to register first, and ride in uniform. Don't expect to be back in time for tea.

image : copyright NationalPonyExpressAssociation
Nonetheless, it's curious that the various museums and collections dedicated to historic postal services don't appear to make more of the road-building programmes that facilitated them. There doesn't seem to have been much mention of the post roads in the Royal Mail's 500 year anniversary celebrations in 2016. However, although completely irrelevant to our theme, this online collection of 500 historic letters, gathered in commemoration, is definitely worth a look.

"The roads," as anyone acquainted with Monty Python's answer to their own question must know, "go without saying."'s handy list (the internet loves a list!) summarizes "8 ways roads helped Rome rule the ancient world" for a quick recap of what those early feats of road engineering were about (spoiler alert: military, mail and trade, in that order).
Wade's Causeway in North Yorkshire, featured on engineering timelines, although somewhat degraded in the 100+ years since the above photograph was taken, is still perhaps the best-preserved stretch of Roman road in Britain. If it is Roman, of course. Alternative suggestions are that is may be either a later structure on a more ancient site, or a still more ancient structure than attributed. The whiff of Neolithic possibility has attracted much speculation from enthusiasts, such as whitbypopwatch's cheerfully whimsical underground whitby.

postcard image : via Wikipedia, date c. 1912
On engineering-timelines you can read about several extant examples of Roman road that have not been subsumed into the UK's modern road system, as a surprising number have - including parts of the A303, mentioned above in reference to the proposed Stonehenge bypass.

Britain's longest and best-known Roman road, Fosse Way, running from Exeter to Lincoln, these days underlies many far less romantically named routes. Take a moment to read, as an example, the relevant page of the website of the Athelstan Museum, in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. Confession: the page itself isn't particularly special, but it gives us an excuse to get you to visit this personality-packed site!  Try the "Our History" pages, and do not miss the description of Malmesbury legend and early aviator, Eilmer the flying monk...

While you may drive the Roman roads often, and often unknowingly, perhaps the best way to enjoy those sections that are neither lost nor tarmacked is to walk them. This 2014 article in The Field gives some nice historical background and suggestions of where to start. For those with serious intent, offers Roman roadwalks region-by-region with detailed directions and personal commentary.

It's an old trope that history lies in layers...  but satisfyingly, in the case of roads it's literally true. Getting down to the nitty gritty, (a US website run by the University of Washington with sponsorship from the industry) shows what those layers are made of, from the Romans to the present day, complete with diagrams. The depth of Roman road construction shows how those roads that were built to last, so it's little wonder that they have: see these reports of newly discovered fragments in Israel, Germany and the UK in the last two years alone.
A rare early photographic record of the building of a road, somewhere (in America?), sometime in the 20th Century, at a time and place that appear to negate the need for traffic control.
photo : public domain; origin unknown
Coming closer in time, The Independent, here, reveals that beneath the modern A5 through Wales a significant portion - up to 40% - of Thomas Telford's Holyhead road, remains intact.

Telford's achievements as a pioneering road builder - "the Colossus of Roads" - are described in his biography on engineering timelines. In Scotland, the 2,000km of new road he engineered improved upon an underlying 18th Century network of military roads of the Scottish highlands. With neat symbolism, these massive "civilian" works overlie their military forebears just as the profession itself shifted from military to civil: Telford becoming the first ever president of Britain's Institution of Civil Engineers in 1820.

It's doubtful whether Telford, despite his training as a stone mason, physically laid any of the roads that he built (readers! please correct us if you know more). A true layer, though, was master road-builder Blind Jack of Knaresborough - engineering timelines gives the briefest of accounts of his remarkable life, and you can also delve into the transcript of an entire 18th Century biography, here.

Finally, (is there any other kind??) gives a digestible history of road construction in the form of a biography of "John McAdam: the Father of the Modern Road" - nicely illustrated with archival clips and images. In any case, no reader of engineering timelines would be caught out at pub quizz by a question about who invented Tarmac...

Speaking of Tarmac, as we were... Transport Focus, the feedback organisation for all users of British transport infrastructure, reports that a smooth ride is still high on drivers' wish-lists: improved road surfaces rank as road users' third-highest priority (after safety and journey time - download the full response here). 

Early novels are full of references to the awfulness of pot-holed roads and the bumpiness of carriage journeys, but it's the first cycling craze that's credited with creating an influential road-users lobby to push for smoother surfacing.

Smoother roads are half the story; smoother vehicles the other. National Museums Scotland provides a brief history of the pneumatic tyre - and if you're able to visit the museum, you can see an original, donated by John Dunlop himself.
Sir Alex Moulton, mentioned in Issue 18 of this newsletter as inventor of the Moulton bicycle, is here pictured with the rubber suspension cone that he devised as a contribution to the design of the iconic Mini car. Rubber was in his blood: his great-grandfather, and agent of US company, Goodyear, had brought the first samples of vulcanized rubber to Britain and established a rubber factory that Alex later joined. You can read his biography on engineering timelines in a new entry sponsored by The Engineering Club.
photograph : courtesy Mini Sport Ltd, used by engineering timelines
Where road meets tyre, a smooth ride is not, however, the absolute highest priority. 1966 has the dubious status of being the year when peacetime deaths on English roads peaked at almost 8,000 fatalities. Among the changes made as a result, innovations in road surfacing and tyre design both played a part in reducing deadliness. The radial tyre saves lives, and a visit to the home of Michelin in the Clermont-Ferrand could thus be considered something of an act of homage - even if, as one reviewer of the museum wearily puts it, "I'm just not that into tyres."

Could Michelin's clip about tyre manufacture change even a jaded reviewer's mind? Details of the process appear simplified for general consumption, but the coils of molten rubber are just gorgeous!
"Help! we're drowning!" The message of this artwork by Barcelona artist, Pejac, couldn't be clearer - and he has a point. While in some countries discarded tyres are subject to a mandatory 100% recycle programme, others still host extensive dumps of old tyres that are destined for non-degradable landfill and prone to spontaneous combustion.
photo : copyright pejac via

People use a lot of tyres. Despite leaps in technology relating to other aspects of vehicular transport, it doesn't look as if that feature is going to change any time soon. With a sort of poetic symmetry, it is now possible to recycle the rubber component as part of rubberized asphalt that has the potential to reduce traffic noise - this short 2010 video made by the European Research Media Centre explains the process.

Although the statistics vary somewhat, it's clear that the roadbuilding industry is, in fact, hot on recycling (or cold on recycling, depending which process you use). And the possibilities for innovative additives grow apace, with recycled plastic roads announced last year as the latest British innovation. The technology used by MacRebur, the company involved, may be new, but as early as 2008 some in the music press were crowing about the reuse of poorly-selling Robbie Williams CDs in Chinese road building.

From Robbie Williams to Owen Williams... it would be ludicrous to reflect on the history of roads without a substantial nod towards the motorway. The history and origin of many notable stretches is described here, on engineering timelines.

Readers might also like to consider lobbying BBC4 for a repeat of its excellent three-part series from 2008, "The Secret Life of the Motorway".  There are currently no plans to broadcast it again, so you can only see the very brief clips - but even so, you do get to watch Williams saying, as he designs the M1, "...there is no other effort in the world being made, comparable to this."
2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the British road sign, designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert and celebrated by the British Road Sign Project and a 2015 exhibition at London's Design Museum. The sign depicted is one of a series commissioned by the British Road Sign Project: we know where we get off!

image : copyright Mark Bonner, GBH

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