Concrete does not exist on its own, as it is a man-made building material. The concrete composite is made when water is added to a combination of cement and aggregates.
When fine aggregates, such as sand, are used, then the final result is – mortar, while the addition of coarse aggregates, such as rocks or pebbles, results in concrete.
And while evidence exist that the Egyptians used a concrete like material about 3000 B.C., and the Romans used a primal form of concrete about 2000 years ago to build bridges, roads and buildings like the Coliseum and the Pantheon in Rome, it wasn’t until 1793 that the technology of producing concrete took a big step forward when the British civil engineer John Smeaton, often regarded as the “father of civil engineering,” discovered a method for producing hydraulic limestone and used the new building material in the construction of the Eddystone lighthouse (1759) in Cornwall.
The next major development took place in the year 1824, when the English inventor Joseph Aspdin invented the Portland cement by firing finely-ground clay and limestone until the limestone was calcined. Aspdin coined the term Portland cement, because the concrete made from it resembled closely the Portland stone, a widely-used building stone in Isle of Portland off the British Coast.
Naturally, the first use in print comes from the same year, from Aspdin patent specification: “An improvement in..artificial stone..which I call Portland cement.”
1828 saw the first civil engineering use of Portland cement in a tunnel under the Thames River, and today Portland cement is still the dominant cement used in concrete production.
The term concrete originates from the Latin concretus ‘condensed, hardened, thick’ to enter the English language circa 14th century with the general meaning of ‘solid’. And while the meaning of a building material is first recorded in 1834, in London Architecture Magazine: “Making an artificial foundation of concrete (which has lately been done in many places)”, the term should had been in colloquial use some 20 years earlier as the Transactions Inst. British Architects in 1836 states that: “The generic term concrete..perhaps, can only date from that period when its use became general and frequent, probably not longer than 15 or 20 years ago.”
The first patent for iron reinforced concrete (combining the power of metal and the strength of concrete for tolerating heavy loads) was granted in 1867 to the French gardener Joseph Monier.
In the following years the progress in the production of reinforced concrete was rapid and it was soon declared as an economical material, as stated in the first recorded use coming from 1902, from a meeting at the Institution of Civil Engineers: “Reinforced concrete is extremely economical..where an imposing building is not required”.
In the following decades, concrete found major usage in civil engineering to turn into one of the most used and strongest building materials, yet as well a byword for gray, harsh architecture. The urban term concrete jungle, to describe a city area containing a high density of buildings with unattractive architecture, became popular in the 1950s.