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 McAdams infancy his fathers 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 birds
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 fathers considerable local position and
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 repairor, 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.
McAdams 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 McAdams
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 McAdams 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
Transforming Bristols 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 cant 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
These two titles sound dull
enough, but McAdam wrote well, and presented his subject in a vivid
manner. Moreover, everyone agreed by now that Englands 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 McAdams 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
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
In 1827, as a direct result of the
committees 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
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