You might think that a book about the history of concrete would make for some mighty lame reading. I must admit that this was my initial reaction when I happened upon Robert Courland's new book "Concrete Planet: The Strange and Fascinating Story of the World's Most Common Man-Made Material" at my local library recently. But after perusing the notes on the inside cover of the dust jacket I suddenly became quite intrigued by this subject. It turns out than human beings have been dabbling in concrete for far longer than we ever imagined and that a number of major historical figures have played a role in its evolution. Indeed, "Concrete Plant" managed to grab my attention in the opening chapter and simply would not let go. This is a real education on so many levels.
You may be as surprised as I was to discover that our ancient ancestors were actually experimenting with limestone and kilns more than 2000 years before the dawn of agriculture. As Robert Courland points out "Kilning limestone represented humankind's first use of complex chemistry. It was also the earliest known industrial process." Archeologists have discovered floors of dwellings in Turkey and Iran that are extraodinarily hard and date back to 7000 B.C. Who knew? In the pages of "Concrete Plant" you will learn how the use of concrete as a building material evolved over the centuries. As you might expect this was an ongoing process of trial and error and the availability of raw materials more often than not determined which civilizations were able to advance the technology. For example, it turns out that volcanic ash is a key ingredient in the Roman cement that was so popular during the days of the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, a growing number of scholars now believe that many of the pyramids in Egypt were constructed with some kind of concrete. I was particularly captivated by two projects undertaken by leaders of the ancient world. Herod the Great built a massive harbor in the port city of Caesarea around 25 B.C. By all accounts this was the single largest application of concrete in all of antiquity and one of the most amazing feats of engineering in history. Even more impressive is the construction of the Pantheon in Rome in 126 A.D. This is a structure that still stands and is in use today. How did they all do it? Robert Courland explores the various theories throughout his book.
Fast forward now to the dawn of the 20th century. Once again, I was flabbergasted to learn that for a time Thomas Edison was a major player in the U.S. concrete industry. Edison formed the Edison Portland Cement Company in 1902 and had extremely ambitious plans to build concrete houses even concrete furniture. Unfortunately for Edison his plans never really materialized. "Concrete World" also devotes a substantial amount of time to the noted architect and interior designer Frank Lloyd Wright. The use of concrete would enable Wright to literally re-write the rules of structural design. Wright's designs expanded the horizontal axis of the structure resulting in a much more expanded living space. His innovative "prairie house" design stood in stark contrast to the largely vertical Victorian style that was so prevalent in the early days of the 20th century.
Finally, Robert Courland spends the closing chapters of his book focusing on how dependent mankind has become on concrete structures and points out many of the mistakes that have been made all along the way. These costly mistakes will exact a great toll on all of us in the decades to come. But there is also good news on the horizon and Courland offers some recommendations on how we can improve the life-span of concrete construction in the future. At the end of the day I thought that "Concrete Planet: The Strange and Fascinating Story of the World's Most Common Man-Made Material" was not only an extremely informative read but a highly entertaining one to boot. This would be a great choice for history buffs, those in the construction trades and general readers alike. I learned an awful lot in this book and I like that. Very highly recommended!
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About the reviewer
Paul Tognetti (drifter51)
I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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