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Significant Scots
John Loudon MacAdam


John Loudon MacAdamJohn MacAdam was born in Ayr in 1756. When he was fourteen he moved to New York and made his fortune working at his uncle's counting-house.

On his return to Scotland in 1783 MacAdam purchased an estate at Sauchrie, Ayrshire, and started experimenting with a new method of road construction. When he was appointed surveyor to the Bristol Turnpike Trust in 1816 he remade the roads under his control with crushed stone bound with gravel on a firm base of large stones. A camber, making the road slightly convex, ensured the rainwater rapidly drained off the road and did not penetrate the foundations. This way of building roads later became known as the Macadamized system.

As a result of his success, MacAdam was made surveyor-general of metropolitan roads in England. By the end of the 19th century, most of the main roads in Europe were built in this way. John MacAdam died in 1836.

The first macadam surface in the United States was laid on the "Boonsborough Turnpike Road" between Hagerstown and Boonsboro, Maryland. By 1822, this section was the last unimproved gap in the great road leading from Baltimore on the Chesapeake Bay to Wheeling on the Ohio River. Stagecoaches using the road in winter needed 5 to 7 hours of travel to cover 10 miles.

Construction specifications for the turnpike road incorporated those set forth by John Loudon McAdam of Scotland. After side ditches were dug, large rocks were picked and raked, then were broken "so as not to exceed 6 ounces in weight or to pass a two-inch ring." Compacting work for each of the three layers was quickened using a cast-iron roller, instead of allowing for compacting under traffic.

In 1830, after 5 years of work, the 73-mile National Pike (or Cumberland Road) became the second American road to be built on the "McAdam principle."

Workers level a road as supervisors look on

1823 - First American Macadam Road


HOW often, when we walk or drive along our splendid English roads, do we consider the incredible difference between them and the roads of a century and a half ago? For many years past now all first-class roads have been spoken of as "macadam" roads. The word sounds familiar enough to anyone, but the name of John Loudon McAdam, who transformed the roads of the world, and whose name has thus become a household word, still remains comparatively unknown. The great engineers who first built railways or steamships have abundant honour, but McAdam and Telford, who made modern road transport possible, are almost forgotten.

McAdam was born at Ayr on the 21st September, 1756. His family was connected with the clan McGregor, and had long been distinguished as a fearless, sturdy breed of men, who obeyed none but their own consciences. James McAdam, father of the road-maker, founded the first bank in Ayr in 1763, and throve accordingly, soon growing to be a man of consequence in the county. During McAdamís infancy his fatherís house at Laywyne, near Ayr, was burnt to the ground, and he narrowly escaped a very premature death. This house was never rebuilt after the fire, and the family removed to Blairquhan, a pleasant country house in the same county, on the banks of the little river Girvan.

McAdam Supervises Model Road

Here McAdam passed the ordinary childhood of a country-bred boy. He got into mischief, rifled birdsí nests, climbed trees, and behaved himself just as one would expect. He attended the parish school at Maybole, near Blairquhan, which his father considered quite sufficient to supply his early educational demands. But, even as a boy, in the intervals between lessons and such serious diversions as rabbiting, McAdam turned his attention towards roads and road-making. Odd though it may sound, while still at school he superintended the construction of a model section of road between Maybole and Kirkoswald, a neighbouring village. This he was probably able to do owing to his fatherís considerable local position and influence.

James McAdam, the banker of Ayr, died in 1770, and by the terms of his will, his son was entrusted to the care of an uncle, who had emigrated to America, and was now a prosperous merchant in New York. Thither the fatherless boy was dispatched, arriving after a journey made wretched by both home-sickness and sea-sickness. His uncle, however, soon made his nephew feel at home, and McAdam settled down in New York, fully expecting to spend his life there engaged in commerce. Until the close of the War of Independence he remained in America, and during the progress of hostilities he became agent for the sale of prizes, a position so lucrative that in a few short months he made quite a considerable fortune.

After the victory of the colonists and the establishment of the United States as an independent power, McAdam made up his mind to return to Scotland. The new Government, moreover, deprived him of a large portion of the money he had accumulated during the war. But he managed to bring enough of his wealth back to Scotland to enable him to purchase an estate at Sauhrie, a tiny village situated on the high road from Ayr to Maybole.

Desire for Wider Interests

For the next thirteen years McAdam continued in his own native country. The life of a small country gentleman, however, was not nearly full enough for one who had been used to an energetic round of business. Accordingly, in addition to managing his own property, McAdam also found time to fill the offices of magistrate, deputy-lieutenant for the county of Ayr, and road trustee. So once more he returned to the study of roads, from which he had been parted ever since his first schoolboy venture in engineering.

As he travelled round the countryside on his various duties, McAdam everywhere traversed roads in the most wretched state of repairóor, rather, in the most chronic state of disrepair. Constant attention on the part of road-menders apparently did no good, for most roads were then made of gravel, and their loose structure offered no resistance to the wheels of a heavy vehicle. In consequence they were ploughed up into fresh ruts and potholes as soon as they were remade. At first McAdam only noticed this lamentable state of affairs, and propounded no remedy. But his mind constantly revolved the matter, and ere long he was to hit upon his famous and permanently successful method of preventing damage to the road surface.

Settles In West of England

In 1798 McAdam was appointed agent for revictualling the navy in all the ports of the west of England. This naturally involved a move from Ayrshire, so he crossed the border and made his way south, like so many more Scotsmen, to conquer England. He settled at Falmouth, and was soon busily and efficiently discharging his duties, for which task his commercial experience in New York stood him in good stead.

McAdamís work took him from one port to another, and he soon came to the conclusion that roads in England were just as bad as those in Scotland, if not worse, as there was more heavy wagon traffic. In his own words, the roads were "at once loose, rough, and perishable, tedious and dangerous to travel on, and very costly to repair." Before leaving Sauhrie he had started experimenting on improved methods of road-making, and he now continued these experiments at his new home at Falmouth.

Although the work was done entirely at his own expense, McAdam had to fight a great deal of prejudice. Unless from a temperamental dislike of a new thing of any kind, which then rather distinguished the inhabitants of these islands, it is difficult to imagine why anyone could have objected to McAdamís attempts to improve the roads. Yet this is but one example in thousands of what, until mankind grew used to the idea of constant innovations and changes, every pioneer in human progress has been forced to endure.

Points of a Good Road

As a result of his investigations, in which he himself plied pick and shovel like any navvy, McAdam came to the conclusion that roads ought to be made exclusively of broken stone. The model road which he planned was to be raised slightly above the level of the surrounding land, and provided with an adequate drainage system. The road itself was to be built up from thin layers of stone, broken into more or less cube-shaped fragments, each one of which was not to weigh more than six ounces.

At first McAdam did not think of consolidating his roadway by rolling, but left it to be done by the ordinary traffic. He confidently predicted that such a road as this would be almost impervious to the weathering action of wind and rain, and hard and unyielding to traffic, and that its life would depend upon the powers of resistance of the stone from which it had been made. Nevertheless, at first McAdamís ideas, and the proof he brought forward to back them up, fell upon deaf or scornful ears. No one yet imagined that this navy-victualler of Falmouth had discovered the secret of making a permanent and satisfactory roadway.

In 1815, the year of Waterloo, McAdam managed to get himself appointed as surveyor-general of the Bristol roads. His own ideas about road-making had now grown to be his most absorbing interest, and he applied for this post solely that he might have the opportunity to test his notions on a reasonably large scale. McAdam had now spent all his private means on carrying out experiments. A road is a costly thing to build, and even a very considerable fortune can quickly vanish in financing road-making operations.

Transforming Bristolís Highways

Installed at Bristol, he put his ideas into practice without delay. Under his care the highways of Bristol were transformed from rutty, muddy quagmires into hard-surfaced, even, and well-drained carriage-ways. Bristol rubbed its eyes and wondered how this Scottish surveyor-general had managed to bring about such a miracle. Soon folk began to talk. Visitors and travellers asked themselves, "Why canít we have roads at home like those at Bristol?" As attention turned at last upon his work, McAdam, in 1819, published his "Practical Essay on the Scientific Repair and Preservation of Roads," which was followed during the next year by his "Present State of Road-making."

These two titles sound dull enough, but McAdam wrote well, and presented his subject in a vivid manner. Moreover, everyone agreed by now that Englandís thoroughfares were incredibly poor, and that "something must be done about them." At all events, by 1822 the second book was in its fifth edition, and the success of the "macadam road" was generally recognized.

Worked for the Public Good

In 1823, on McAdamís petition, a committee of the House of Commons was set up to inquire into the feasibility of applying this new system of road-making throughout the country. McAdam, of course, attended, and gave evidence at length. Only then did it appear what immense labours and trouble he had taken in order to bring his system to perfection. Between 1798 and 1814 he had travelled no less than 30,000 miles in order to examine the roads of Britain. He had spent 2,000 days on his travels, which had cost him £5,000. Besides this sum, he had expended large sums on private experiments. All this he had carried out from entirely disinterested motives; his only wish was that the roads should be improved for the public good. Philanthropists who work among the destitute or afflicted are generally recognized, but we should not forget that the patient, painstaking round of labour which McAdam undertook for the good of his fellow men, is also philanthropy at its highest.

In 1827, as a direct result of the committeeís report, McAdam became general surveyor of roads for the whole of England, Scotland, and Wales, and Parliament voted him various sums of money, £10,000 in all, to indemnify him for his own private expenditure in the past.

Putting His Theories into Practice

Henceforward, McAdam was busily engaged in applying his fine system of road-making and maintenance throughout the country. He worked unceasingly in spite of his increasing age, and though his home was now as Hoddesdon, near Hertford, most of his time was spent in journeying about the country in his carriage, behind which a great Newfoundland dog invariably ran. The Government wished to reward him for his great services with a knighthood, but this McAdam refused, for his only satisfaction lay in seeing his fine new hard roads stretching far and wide through the British country-side.

McAdam was twice married, both of his wives being of American descent. By his first wife he had a family of four sons and three daughters. One of his sons subsequently accepted the knighthood which his father had declined. The famous road-maker was an impulsive, generous-hearted man, but one who by no means suffered fools gladly. Senseless or pig-headed opposition to his views caused him to lose his temper, but to his family and friends he was ever the most courteous and amiable of men.

Death from Heart Attack

He delighted to revisit the haunts of his boyhood, and regularly each year he made an expedition to Scotland. While returning from such a tour McAdam died at Moffat, Dumfriesshire, on the 26th November, 1836. He was eighty years old, and succumbed to a heart attack in a few hours. Actually, he was worn out by building the roads of England as we know them. In spite of his incalculabIe services to his fellow-countrymen, McAdam died a poor man, but, as he said shortly before his death, "at least honest."


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