Back to basics: The history of concrete

Concrete is a building material of water, aggregate, and cement. It is an essential component of modern construction, with billions of tons of concrete produced yearly. Its versatile applications range from building foundations, walls, roads, bridges, and more. In this article, we will explore the history of concrete, from its earliest use by ancient civilisations to the present day.

Table of Contents

Prehistoric use of concrete

Ancient Egyptians used natural materials similar to cement when constructing pyramids and other structures. They combined gypsum and limestone to create a mixture resembling modern concrete, which formed the foundations of these impressive edifices, including the Great Wall of Giza.

The ancient Romans were also known for their extensive use of concrete in constructing remarkable structures like the Colosseum and aqueducts. They used a mixture of volcanic ash, lime, and water called opus caementicium. The Romans poured this mixture into wooden forms, hardening into a solid and durable material. Concrete was popular with the Romans not only because of its strength but also because of its ability to resist elements and fire.

After the decline of the Roman Empire, the use of natural cement-like materials dwindled, but the knowledge of their use was preserved. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the use of these materials was revived in Europe. They were used to construct impressive structures like the Pantheon in Paris and the Chateau de Chambord in France.

Pyramids in Egypt.
The colosseum.
the detail of the ceiling under the external colonnade of the Pantheon, Paris.

The discovery of modern concrete

In the 19th century, the introduction of Portland cement transformed the concrete industry. This new type of cement, made by combining limestone and clay, was more robust and more durable than the natural cement mixes of the past. As a result, concrete became a popular choice for construction projects and is now one of the most widely used building materials worldwide.

Joseph Aspdin, a British bricklayer, is credited with inventing Portland cement and patenting it in 1824. However, Joseph’s son, William Aspdin, developed the modern process for making Portland cement in the mid-19th century, which is still used today.

The primary ingredient in Portland cement is crushed limestone mixed with clay, forming a fine powder. This powder is then heated at high temperatures in a kiln, which triggers a chemical reaction and creates a solid substance known as a clinker. The clinker is then ground into a fine powder to produce Portland cement.

Oil tanks.

Advancements in concrete technology

In the 20th century, the development of reinforced concrete and the use of precast and prestressed construction significantly increased the strength and versatility of concrete. Reinforced concrete, consisting of concrete reinforced with steel bars, is much stronger than plain concrete and is used for high-strength applications such as building and bridge construction. Steel bars, or rebar, are placed within the concrete before it hardens to provide additional support and increase the material’s tensile strength.

Precast and prestressed concrete elements, such as beams, columns, walls, and long-span structures like bridges, are manufactured offsite and transported to the construction site. In prestressed concrete, high-tension cables are placed within the concrete and tightened before it hardens, providing additional support and increasing tensile strength. This method results in faster construction times and can reduce costs.

New types of concrete have been developed to meet modern construction needs, including self-consolidating concrete, which is highly flowable and easily placed without vibration, and high-performance concrete, with enhanced strength and durability. These concrete types are helpful in situations where traditional concrete may not be suitable, such as high-rise buildings or areas with extreme weather conditions.

Underground railway.
Upward facing image of skyscrapers


Concrete history is captivating, and its role in modern society cannot be understated. From its humble beginnings in ancient Egypt and Rome to the development of Portland cement in the 19th century and the advancements in reinforced, precast, and prestressed concrete in the 20th century, concrete has evolved into a versatile and durable material widely used in construction projects around the world.

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