John Loudon McAdam, surveyor, inventor and builder of roads, died on the 26th of November, 1836.
Next time you drive your car, take a moment to thank John Loudon McAdam, whose development of the ‘macadam’ road building technique, paved the way for your smooth road trip. McAdam was the Scotsman who was responsible for the greatest advance in road construction since the Romans. McAdam had, at various times in his life, worked in his uncle’s merchant bank; owned a controlling interest in iron works that manufactured coal products; supplied victuals to the Navy; served as a Magistrate and Deputy Lieutenant for Ayrshire; and been a Trustee of Roads, before he became a ‘road engineer’. He had also held a commission as a Major in a Corps of Artillery and was proud of that having been one of the last to have been signed personally by George III. But perhaps his most notably infamous job involved his co-ownership of a Privateer during the American War of Independence. During the hostilities, he became an ‘agent for the sale of prizes’, which is a euphemism for disposing of stolen goods seized by force under tacit government authority. That exercise was lucrative enough for him to have made a considerable fortune, but after the War and being on the losing side, his assets were seized in turn and he was kicked out of newly independent America.
In McAdam’s day, the roads had long since deteriorated from how the Romans had left them and after he returned from ‘the Colonies’, McAdam, at his own expense, began to experiment with various methods of road building. He developed his revolutionary method, involving a system of improved drainage, and confidently asserted that his roads would be impervious to the weathering action of wind and rain, and withstand the heavy traffic of the day. Doubters and sceptics were plenty and scornful, but McAdam astounded everyone by coming up with the secret of building durable roadways that were far cheaper to maintain than hitherto. Due to his inventiveness, the highways of Falmouth and Bristol were transformed from rutted quagmires into even, hard surfaced and well-drained carriageways that could withstand the dual pressures of traffic and weather. In addition to being the creator of better road surfaces, McAdam also developed ideas of good road management, which many of the turnpike companies of the day adopted. As a result of his success, in 1827, McAdam was made Surveyor General of Metropolitan roads for England, Scotland and Wales.
In 1816, McAdam published his aggregate experience in ‘Remarks on the Present System of Road Making’ and in 1819, ‘Practical Essay on the Scientific Repair and Preservation of Roads’. Not exactly inspiring titles, but there was a happy ending in that the author’s name has long since entered into posterity and its derivative into the vernacular. Although McAdam held valid patents on his method of road building, those were neither protected nor enforced and he received no royalties. Maybe that was fair enough as his processes were so important for the public good. A Parliamentary Committee did award him a cash sum, but that was merely a token in relation to the enormous effort he had expended. He was also offered a token Knighthood, but he turned it down. He bequeathed his family a decent living in managing or consulting to the nation’s Road Trusts, but in spite of his invaluable contribution, McAdam died relatively poor.
McAdam’s legacy was such that by the end of the 19th Century, most of the main roads in Europe were built his way. The first McAdam surface in the United States was laid on the ‘Boonsborough Turnpike Road’ between Hagerstown and Boonsboro in Maryland and, except for the addition of a layer of tar or bitumen to produce ashphalt, a process patented by E. Purnell Hooley in 1901 and known as ‘Tar Macadam’, McAdam's basic techniques remain in use by road builders even today. Strangely enough, McAdam didn’t come up with the idea of using tar, despite the fact that at one time he owned a factory that produced caulking tar from coal. Ironically, he actually condemned an interim improvement introduced by Richard Edgeworth, which used stone dust mixed with water to fill the surface gaps. It was ‘water bound macadam’ which led to his name being adopted into the language and as Jeremy Bentham wrote in 1825, “McAdam’s system justified the perpetuation of McAdam’s name in popular speech”. The first bitumenous pavement was laid in Paris, in 1854, but it wasn't until the 20th Century and the arrival of the motor car that ‘black top’ or ‘tarmac’ became commonplace.
John Loudon McAdam was born in Lady Cathcart’s house in the Sandgate, in Ayr, on the 21st of September, 1756. He was educated at McDoick’s School at Maybole, near Blairquhan, until he was obliged to leave at the age of fourteen, when the Bank of Ayr, his father’s business, collapsed and his father died. So, in 1770, he was given over to the care of his uncle, a banker in New York City, who gave him employment in his counting house. During the ‘American Revolution’, John and his partner, Robert Gilmore, operated the Privateer ‘General Matthew’ and, but for the British having lost, would’ve been set up with a tidy fortune from the spoils of war. That was not to be and he returned to purchase an estate at Sauchrie, near Maybole in Ayrshire, in 1783, with what little capital hadn’t been confiscated. McAdam benefitted from close links with his relative, the 9th Earl of Dundonald and his son, Admiral Lord Cochrane, to gain a controlling interest in a tar factory, but business declined with the adoption of copper for sheathing vessels. Meanwhile, he had been experimenting with road building and developing his new theories, but the next major event was his flitting to Falmouth in 1798, at the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, to become a Government Agent for feeding the Navy.
So it was that the Scotsman from Ayrshire, via New York and the ‘high seas’, began to put his ideas into practice in Cornwall. He was determined to do something about roads, which were in his own words, “at once loose, rough, and perishable, tedious and dangerous to travel on, and very costly to repair”. McAdam got a further opportunity in 1815, the year of Waterloo, when he was given the role of Surveyor for the turnpike roads in Bristol. By the mid-1820s, his methods had overcome skepticism and gained Parliamentary approval and the rest was plain sailing – or smooth riding. John Loudon McAdam died on the 26th of November, 1836, and was buried in Moffat, in Dumfriesshire.