Ancient times

The use of natural bitumen for waterproofing, and as an adhesive dates at least to the fifth millennium BC, with a crop storage basket discovered in Mehrgarh, of the Indus Valley Civilization, lined with it. By the 3rd millennium BC refined rock asphalt was in use in the region, and was used to waterproof the Great Bath in Mohenjo-daro.

In the ancient Middle East, the Sumerians used natural bitumen deposits for mortar between bricks and stones, to cement parts of carvings, such as eyes, into place, for ship caulking, and for waterproofing. The Greek historian Herodotus said hot bitumen was used as mortar in the walls of Babylon.

The 1 kilometer (0.62 mi) long Euphrates Tunnel beneath the river Euphrates at Babylon in the time of Queen Semiramis (c. 800 BC) was reportedly constructed of burnt bricks covered with bitumen as a waterproofing agent.

Bitumen was used by ancient Egyptians to embalm mummies. The Persian word for asphalt is moom, which is related to the English word mummy. The Egyptians’ primary source of bitumen was the Dead Sea, which the Romans knew as Palus Asphaltites (Asphalt Lake).

In approximately 40 AD, Dioscorides described the Dead Sea material as Judaicum bitumen, and noted other places in the region where it could be found. The Sidon bitumen is thought to refer to material found at Hasbeya in Lebanon. Pliny also refers to bitumen being found in Epirus. Bitumen was a valuable strategic resource. It was the object of the first known battle for a hydrocarbon deposit — between the Seleucids and the Nabateans in 312 BC.

In the ancient Far East, natural bitumen was slowly boiled to get rid of the higher fractions, leaving a thermoplastic material of higher molecular weight that when layered on objects became quite hard upon cooling. This was used to cover objects that needed waterproofing, such as scabbards and other items. Statuettes of household deities were also cast with this type of material in Japan, and probably also in China.

In North America, archaeological recovery has indicated that bitumen was sometimes used to adhere stone projectile points to wooden shafts. In Canada, aboriginal people used bitumen seeping out of the banks of the Athabasca and other rivers to waterproof birch bark canoes, and also heated it in smudge pots to ward off mosquitoes in the summer.

Continental Europe

In 1553, Pierre Belon described in his work Observations that pissasphalto, a mixture of pitch and bitumen, was used in the Republic of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik, Croatia) for tarring of ships.

An 1838 edition of Mechanics Magazine cites an early use of asphalt in France. A pamphlet dated 1621, by “a certain Monsieur d’Eyrinys, states that he had discovered the existence (of asphaltum) in large quantities in the vicinity of Neufchatel”, and that he proposed to use it in a variety of ways – “principally in the construction of air-proof granaries, and in protecting, by means of the arches, the water-courses in the city of Paris from the intrusion of dirt and filth”, which at that time made the water unusable. “He expatiates also on the excellence of this material for forming level and durable terraces” in palaces, “the notion of forming such terraces in the streets not one likely to cross the brain of a Parisian of that generation”.

But the substance was generally neglected in France until the revolution of 1830. In the 1830s there was a surge of interest, and asphalt became widely used “for pavements, flat roofs, and the lining of cisterns, and in England, some use of it had been made of it for similar purposes”. Its rise in Europe was “a sudden phenomenon”, after natural deposits were found “in France at Osbann (Bas-Rhin), the Parc (Ain) and the Puy-de-la-Poix (Puy-de-Dôme)”, although it could also be made artificially. One of the earliest uses in France was the laying of about 24,000 square yards of Seyssel asphalt at the Place de la Concorde in 1835.

United Kingdom

Among the earlier uses of bitumen in the United Kingdom was for etching. William Salmon’s Polygraphice (1673) provides a recipe for varnish used in etching, consisting of three ounces of virgin wax, two ounces of mastic, and one ounce of asphaltum. By the fifth edition in 1685, he had included more asphaltum recipes from other sources.

The first British patent for the use of asphalt was “Cassell’s patent asphalte or bitumen” in 1834. Then on 25 November 1837, Richard Tappin Claridge patented the use of Seyssel asphalt (patent #7849), for use in asphalte pavement, having seen it employed in France and Belgium when visiting with Frederick Walter Simms, who worked with him on the introduction of asphalt to Britain. Dr T. Lamb Phipson writes that his father, Samuel Ryland Phipson, a friend of Claridge, was also “instrumental in introducing the asphalte pavement (in 1836)”.

Claridge obtained a patent in Scotland on 27 March 1838, and obtained a patent in Ireland on 23 April 1838. In 1851, extensions for the 1837 patent and for both 1838 patents were sought by the trustees of a company previously formed by Claridge. Claridge’s Patent Asphalte Company—formed in 1838 for the purpose of introducing to Britain “Asphalte in its natural state from the mine at Pyrimont Seysell in France”,—”laid one of the first asphalt pavements in Whitehall”. Trials were made of the pavement in 1838 on the footway in Whitehall, the stable at Knightsbridge Barracks, “and subsequently on the space at the bottom of the steps leading from Waterloo Place to St. James Park”. “The formation in 1838 of Claridge’s Patent Asphalte Company (with a distinguished list of aristocratic patrons, and Marc and Isambard Brunel as, respectively, a trustee and consulting engineer), gave an enormous impetus to the development of a British asphalt industry”. “By the end of 1838, at least two other companies, Robinson’s and the Bastenne company, were in production”, with asphalt being laid as paving at Brighton, Herne Bay, Canterbury, Kensington, the Strand, and a large floor area in Bunhill-row, while meantime Claridge’s Whitehall paving “continue(d) in good order”.

In 1838, there was a flurry of entrepreneurial activity involving asphalt, which had uses beyond paving. For example, asphalt could also be used for flooring, damp proofing in buildings, and for waterproofing of various types of pools and baths, both of which were also proliferating in the 19th century. On the London stockmarket, there were various claims as to the exclusivity of asphalt quality from France, Germany and England. And numerous patents were granted in France, with similar numbers of patent applications being denied in England due to their similarity to each other. In England, “Claridge’s was the type most used in the 1840s and 50s”.

In 1914, Claridge’s Company entered into a joint venture to produce tar-bound macadam, with materials manufactured through a subsidiary company called Clarmac Roads Ltd. Two products resulted, namely Clarmac, and Clarphalte, with the former being manufactured by Clarmac Roads and the latter by Claridge’s Patent Asphalte Co., although Clarmac was more widely used. However, the First World War ruined the Clarmac Company, which entered into liquidation in 1915. The failure of Clarmac Roads Ltd had a flow-on effect to Claridge’s Company, which was itself compulsorily wound up, ceasing operations in 1917, having invested a substantial amount of funds into the new venture, both at the outset and in a subsequent attempt to save the Clarmac Company.

Bitumen was thought in 19th century Britain to contain chemicals with medicinal properties. Extracts from bitumen were used to treat catarrh and some forms of asthma and as a remedy against worms, especially the tapeworm.

United States

The first use of bitumen in the New World was by indigenous peoples. On the west coast, as early as the 13th century, the Tongva, Luiseño and Chumash peoples collected the naturally occurring bitumen that seeped to the surface above underlying petroleum deposits. All three groups used the substance as an adhesive. It is found on many different artifacts of tools and ceremonial items. For example, it was used on rattles to adhere gourds or turtle shells to rattle handles. It was also used in decorations. Small round shell beads were often set in asphaltum to provide decorations. It was used as a sealant on baskets to make them watertight for carrying water, possibly poisoning those who drank the water. Asphalt was used also to seal the planks on ocean-going canoes.

Asphalt was first used to pave streets in the 1870s. At first naturally occurring “bituminous rock” was used, such as at Ritchie Mines in Macfarlan in Ritchie County, West Virginia from 1852 to 1873. In 1876, asphalt-based paving was used to pave Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC, in time for the celebration of the national centennial.

In the horse-drawn era, US streets were mostly unpaved and covered with dirt or gravel. Especially where mud or trenching often made streets difficult to pass. pavements were sometimes made of diverse materials including wooden planks, cobble stones or other stone blocks, or bricks. Unpaved roads produced uneven wear and hazards for pedestrians. In the late 19th century with the rise of the popular bicycle, bicycle clubs were important in pushing for more general pavement of streets. Advocacy for pavement increased in the early 20th century with the rise of the automobile. Asphalt gradually became an ever more common method of paving. St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans was paved its whole length with asphalt by 1889.

In 1900 Manhattan alone had 130,000 horses, pulling streetcars, wagons, and carriages, and leaving their waste behind. They were not fast, and pedestrians could dodge and scramble their way across the crowded streets. Small towns continued to rely on dirt and gravel, but larger cities wanted much better streets. They looked to wood or granite blocks by the 1850s. In 1890, a third of Chicago’s 2000 miles of streets were paved, chiefly with wooden blocks, which gave better traction than mud. Brick surfacing was a good compromise, but even better was asphalt paving, which was easy to install and to cut through to get at sewers. With London and Paris serving as models, Washington laid 400,000 square yards of asphalt paving by 1882; it became the model for Buffalo, Philadelphia and elsewhere. By the end of the century, American cities boasted 30 million square yards of asphalt paving, well ahead of brick. The streets became faster and more dangerous so electric traffic lights were installed. Electric trolleys (at 12 miles per hour) became the main transportation service for middle class shoppers and office workers until they bought automobiles after 1945 and commuted from more distant suburbs in privacy and comfort on asphalt highways.


Canada has the world’s largest deposit of natural bitumen in the Athabasca oil sands, and Canadian First Nations along the Athabasca River had long used it to waterproof their canoes. In 1719, a Cree named Wa-Pa-Su brought a sample for trade to Henry Kelsey of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who was the first recorded European to see it. However, it wasn’t until 1787 that fur trader and explorer Alexander MacKenzie saw the Athabasca oil sands and said, “At about 24 miles from the fork (of the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers) are some bituminous fountains into which a pole of 20 feet long may be inserted without the least resistance.”

The value of the deposit was obvious from the start, but the means of extracting the bitumen was not. The nearest town, Fort McMurray, Alberta, was a small fur trading post, other markets were far away, and transportation costs were too high to ship the raw bituminous sand for paving. In 1915, Sidney Ells of the Federal Mines Branch experimented with separation techniques and used the product to pave 600 feet of road in Edmonton, Alberta. Other roads in Alberta were paved with material extracted from oil sands, but it was generally not economic. During the 1920s Dr. Karl A. Clark of the Alberta Research Council patented a hot water oil separation process and entrepreneur Robert C. Fitzsimmons built the Bitumount oil separation plant, which between 1925 and 1958 produced up to 300 barrels (50 m3) per day of bitumen using Dr. Clark’s method. Most of the bitumen was used for waterproofing roofs, but other uses included fuels, lubrication oils, printers ink, medicines, rust- and acid-proof paints, fireproof roofing, street paving, patent leather, and fence post preservatives. Eventually Fitzsimmons ran out of money and the plant was taken over by the Alberta government. Today the Bitumount plant is a Provincial Historic Site.

Photography and art

Bitumen was used in early photographic technology. In 1826 or 1827, it was used by French scientist Joseph Nicéphore Niépce to make the oldest surviving photograph from nature. The bitumen was thinly coated onto a pewter plate which was then exposed in a camera. Exposure to light hardened the bitumen and made it insoluble, so that when it was subsequently rinsed with a solvent only the sufficiently light-struck areas remained. Many hours of exposure in the camera were required, making bitumen impractical for ordinary photography, but from the 1850s to the 1920s it was in common use as a photoresist in the production of printing plates for various photomechanical printing processes.

Bitumen was the nemesis of many artists during the 19th century. Although widely used for a time, it ultimately proved unstable for use in oil painting, especially when mixed with the most common diluents, such as linseed oil, varnish and turpentine. Unless thoroughly diluted, bitumen never fully solidifies and will in time corrupt the other pigments with which it comes into contact. The use of bitumen as a glaze to set in shadow or mixed with other colors to render a darker tone resulted in the eventual deterioration of many paintings, for instance those of Delacroix. Perhaps the most famous example of the destructiveness of bitumen is Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1818–1819), where his use of bitumen caused the brilliant colors to degenerate into dark greens and blacks and the paint and canvas to buckle.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *