Hidden in Plain Sight, Concrete Holds a Strange History

New book investigates the world's most common man-made material

on February 18, 2012 6:49 AM EST

Cover of 'Concrete Planet' by Robert Courland
This is the cover of "Concrete Planet" by Robert Courland. (Photo: Image courtesy of Prometheus B)

Concrete: We use it for our buildings, bridges, dams, and roads. We walk on it, drive on it, and many of us work within its walls. Yet very few of us know what it is. We take the substance that is the basis of this familiar landscape for granted; yet the story of its creation and development features a cast of fascinating characters and remarkable historical episodes. A new history of concrete, "Concrete Planet: The Strange and Fascinating Story of the World's Most Common Man-Made Material", illuminates the history of a ubiquitous material often hidden in plain sight.

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"In a way, the story of concrete is also the story of civilization: its roots reach back to prehistoric times and even predate agriculture and the wheel," "Concrete Planet" author Robert Courland says.

Some of the most famous personalities of history became involved in the development and use of concrete-including King Herod the Great of Judea, the Roman emperor Hadrian, Thomas Edison (who once owned the largest concrete cement plant in the world), and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the discovery of concrete directly led to the Neolithic Revolution and the rise of the earliest civilizations. Much later, the Romans achieved high production standards for making concrete, showcasing their achievement in buildings like the Coliseum and the Pantheon.

However, with the fall of the Roman Empire, the secrets of concrete manufacturing were lost for over a millennia. When concrete was rediscovered in the late eighteenth century, it was viewed as an interesting novelty or, at best, a specialized building material suitable only for a narrow range of applications. It was only toward the end of the nineteenth century that the use of concrete exploded. During this rapid expansion, industry lobbyists tried to disguise the fact that modern concrete had certain defects and critical shortcomings.

It is now recognized that modern concrete, unlike its Roman predecessor, gradually disintegrates with age. Compounding this problem is another distressing fact: the manufacture of concrete cement is a major contributor to global warming. "Concrete Planet" provides a look into the history of concrete and the future of our society as it faces what "Nature" magazine calls "the ticking time bomb of today's crumbling concrete infrastructure."

Provided by Prometheus Books

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