Good as the Best

What’s in a name?
That which we call macadam
By any other name would be as strong.

OK, the Bard I ain’t, but it *was* a heigh-ho moment when I read about macadam in the afore-mentioned book by Simon Winchester (he covers a lot of ground, no pun intended). In his chapter on American roads he devotes a few paragraphs to one John McAdam, a Scot I had never heard of.

Or had I?

Well, sort of. Because from time to time I *had* seen the name for the eponymous Road that John Built: macadam. And this Winchester nugget at last answered my question about where to put the em-FA-sis in this seldom-heard word. You just say it like the name: mac-AD-am.

McAdam’s breakthrough, memorialized in the word we use for the road itself, was to build roads with the top layer being stones more-or-less of one size and much smaller than the wheels that would be rolling over them in the early 1800s. As Winchester puts it, he threw out the existing rulebook (which seems to have had one rule: Use slabs of rock, the bigger the better) and went instead for compaction.

Building then became simplicity itself. The hired laborers could easily measure their stones: they could sit in shifts beside the roadway, piles of rocks dumped beside them, and with small hammers they could chip away and shape these larger stones into more-or-less spherical objects [Ed: Note the lovely hyphens] that weighed less than about six ounces. They would then pop the finished stones into their mouths to make sure they were the proper size, and finally toss all the suitable candidates into a basket to be carried away and laid on the surface. – The Men Who United the States

And here we see that “simple” is not necessarily the same as “easy.” This is not how I might want to pass a summer’s day, but I guess it was easier, and better working conditions as we might say today, than dragging around big slabs of rock, the bigger the worser.

But good now, there’s more. Those engineers never stop.

In the 1920s, a Welshman named Edward Hooley decided to spray tar on John McAdam’s crushed-rock surface — creating tarmacadam, or tarmac, in America called blacktop.

And so there you have it. The next time I’m sitting at an airport waiting for a flight — if such a time there ever be — I’ll be watching planes out on the tarmac. The tarmacadam. And thinking of one John McAdam and of all the other engineers who’ve made this world I take for granted.

So much for granted, in fact, that I don’t even wonder where those funny words came from.

If you want to read about other inventions named after their inventors —
from mason jars to ferris wheels —
check this out.

If you want to read about the difference between macadam and asphalt,
here’s a write-up by a former civil engineering consultant
who has a thing about chocolate-bar metaphors.

If you’d like to explore other Shakespearean quotes still in common usage,
enjoy this YouTube video by Rob Brydon.
Thanks to S. Dunning and J.L. Whitman.

This entry was posted in Appreciating Deeply, Through History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Good as the Best

  1. Jim Robertson says:

    After reading the macadam vs asphalt explanation, not sure I will eat a chocolate bar with quite the same pleasant thoughts. But that might be better for my waist/waste line.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim R – Now there’s a thought that leaves some just-slightly-worse-than-virtual grit in your mouth. Yuck!

  2. Tom Watson says:

    Can you even imagine being a road worker, picking up the stones and popping them into your mouth to be sure they were the right size? Gadzooks, McAdam.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – I hope they had lots of water . . . Clean water. I’m thinking the odds are not good.

  3. I did a presentation for our Jane Austen group that included several slides about macadam roads. These roads opened up England for commerce and the lending library, plus made it safer to send money by post, since there was a much greater chance of the mail arriving without being stolen. Rarely does one invention permanently change the world .

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – Fascinating. Infrastructure is sort of invisible, I guess, unless/until it fails.

  4. barbara carlson says:

    …their poor teeth…

  5. Isabel Gibson says:

    Barbara – Ouch. I hadn’t thought of that. Yes, likely bad news, and especially in a time with no real dental care.

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