It is difficult, looking backwards, to conceive of gravel roads and footpaths as carefully engineered devices of high technology.
The gleaming surface of the Great North Road which connected London to the industrial centers and provinces of the north, shone bright yellow with gravel: granite gravel, to be sure; gravel carefully sorted, hardpacked over a deep foundation, molded into a gentle rise to coax the rainwater into channels on either side of its surface; but nonetheless, a gravel road all the same. Properly broken, sorted, and washed, layered in “very light coats,” with broad pebbles lying flat and their interstices jammed “closely with stone chips well driven in,” the nineteenth-century gravel road formed a monolith, a “solid smooth hard surface,” which extended from London’s hub like the spokes of a wheel, welding together Edinburgh, London, Manchester, Bristol, and Holyhead into a single concrete surface. Clean gravel depended on knowing that London loam was particularly sticky so London gravel hard to clean; on knowing the difference between gravel and limestone and flint; on a magisterial knowledge of the belts of rock of different counties. But even the cleanest gravel was useless if it only covered a few miles of road surface.
The true beauty of this surface was its extension, when complete, across the length and breadth of nation, transforming it from a simple piece of architecture into a machine integral to an economic and human system, where gravel, wheel, and animals delicately interacted in a larger machine: upon the gravel the carriage wheel ran “upon the nail,” in other words, the very center of the wheel’s diameter; the vertical wheel minimized the teeter of the carriage; the straight direction of the carriage minimized the wear upon the vehicle, the strain of the horse, and the “jolt and rattle” given to the bodies of the passengers. It was stunning, seen properly, as a demonstration of perfections of scale: great tons of gravel reduced to exact similarity at the very cusp of the age of mechanical reproduction; great tracts of surging and sinking territory reined into similar straightness, firmness, and altitude; the same molded into uniform composition over hundreds upon hundreds of miles: dependable, omnipresent, the first transformation of space on the scale of a nation.
British roads, so well designed a century before similar surfaces in other advanced nations, so tightly associated with Britain’s booming manufactures and trade, have inspired many biographers. These narrators have been impressed by certain features of the roads’ evolution, fetishizing the role of the commanding engineer and his intellectual designs for a firm foundation, broken into precise layers of clay, freestone, gravel, and sediment, which by employing pure mathematics and science to the problems of everyday life, created the first tracks capable of enduring the seasons, and so lifted up and forward the carts and stagecoaches of British commerce straight from the medieval mud and into the modern era. On the basis of this reasoning of individual intellect and its collective consequences, a cult of celebrity grew up and encircled John Loudon Macadam and Thomas Telford by the end of the nineteenth century, and that lasting antique glow has been used to illuminate stories of the industrial revolution down to the later years of the twentieth century. Such accounts romanticize the engineer as a man of science, invention, and mathematics, and they pointed to his recipes for road foundations and gravel surfaces as a demonstration of logical skill. As a result, these stories, common enough in today’s textbooks, extol the everyday knowledge of foundation-building and gravel making, hardly works of intellectual prowess. These historians miss the point: gravel was not what was so stunning about road-making at all.
The mathematics necessary to design these roads were very slight, and the material technology very ancient; Rome had built roads upon the same principle: a deep foundation, light layers of even stone. By the eighteenth century, these pavements had crumbled, their fragments sunk deep beneath the mud, occasionally unearthed by work-crews digging new foundations, except in rare exceptions, like the Ermine Road which surfaced from the gloomy earth in modern Brockworth and Barnwood, where it formed part of the nineteenth-century Gloucester Road, a remnant of routes belonging to another time. Indeed, contemporaries found the irony “worthy of remark” that “after the lapse of many centuries” Britain’s modern roads, so boasted of as a marvel of engineering, were pioneered “by adopting the plan of the ancient Romans.”
Great roads came and went with the empires that built them. The ancient problem, as the modern one, was principally one of governance and management, necessary to carve wider streets from the parcels of hundreds of city property-holders, necessary to coordinate and enforce uniform behavior among road laborers across dozens of parishes and hundreds of miles over months, seasons, and years. Such problems plagued the turnpike trusts, local courts, and parliamentary committees that attempted highway development in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain. A single, technologically proficient stretch of built street was nothing more than an architectural folly; a road only became a technological marvel when it conveyed wheels, carriages, animals, and people over hundreds of miles, rendered into a monolith by the inflexible hand of management.
Consumed by the details of construction, historians of engineering until recently missed the grandeur of infrastructural scale, and therefore failed to inquire what technologies of management and money made it possible. The real problem was one of the massive administrative apparatus required to implement regular repairs evenly dispersed over large tracts of territory. Any administration that would solve this problem faces an uphill battle against irresponsibility, neglect, and time: carriages, horses, and pedestrians everywhere are content to travel as the condition of roads literally crumbles beneath them. Those institutions that successfully preserved economically productive roads from erosion and degeneration have been historically rare and economically significant. Romans had required householders on either side of the road to maintain the road in front of their farmland, and enforced their laws with military rigor. Medieval roads throughout Europe disintegrated, maintained sometimes by a provincial king, sometimes by feudal duty, and sometimes by monasteries that counted bridge and road-repair as an earthly act of charity. Feudal obligations and church structure had been demolished in England by the Tudor reforms of 1553, nominally replaced by a parish system which had no authority to enforce its power, over which no authority extended. By the eighteenth century, Britain’s Roman roads had all but crumbled. Still distinguishable as straight trackways, little if any of the road surface, most of it long since buried, was usable by eighteenth-century Britons. Roads and bridges come and go with the empires that build them. The problem of road maintenance has been everywhere bound up with creating lasting structures of management and responsibility capable of insuring continued investment against the hordes of would-be free-riders. The gleaming surface of the Great North Road was a sign that Britain had successfully solved anew an ancient problem in state authority, the management of labor, and the regular extension of projected plans over the ordinary landscape.
Insuring uniform deployment of clean gravel over hundreds of miles involved road-builders in questions of labor management and government responsibility. Britain solved such problems through a series of different institutions – military, entrepreneurial, and parliamentary – which delivered human control and centralized capital into the hands of that ancient parish officer, the road surveyor. Military engineers in Scotland used parliamentary funds and well-organized gangs to turn boulders and carve foundations. The successful turnpike surveyors of the eighteenth century brought military discipline and entrepreneurial funding to bear in the local counties. By the nineteenth century, local surveyors for both parishes and turnpikes had access to the experiences of both.
The British century of road-building developed through the minute application of control to human labor. Thomas Hughes, writing his road manual of 1837, pointed that in his “systematic mode of improving the road” the “principal ingredient” of “effectual improvements” was “labor.” Modern surveyors began uniformly to adopt such measures, consulting manuals by both civil engineers like Thomas Hughson and John Loudon Macadam, and by politicians and landholders like Henry Parnell and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, whose long exposure to problems of management in the role of highway advocates made them as well-acquainted with the principles of foundation maintenance as any engineer or surveyor. New tools for sorting rocks and grading curves helped the rank-and-file workman to conform to the designs for proper drainage invented among the engineers. Primitive tools then merely made the bodies of labor conform to the needs of design, thus making the discipline and use of human labor more productive and efficient. Thus contemporary writers could identify the “great advantage attending Mr. MacAdam’s model of road-making” was the discipline of “human labour,” and point to the changes in whereby the majority highway budgets, previously dedicated to the rental of horses, were now dedicated to paying for more efficient and productive forms of human labor. Modern civil engineering emerged at the crossroads where state control, institutionalized capital, and disciplined labor gathered and expanded over territory.