Tuesday 26 November 2013

John Loudon McAdam, King of the Road

John Loudon McAdam (Ayr, Scotland, 21st September 1756 - Moffat, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, 26th November 1836)

John Loudon McAdam by Charles Turner
John Loudon McAdam by Charles Turner

We've spent a lot of time with monarchs and Emperors, actresses and artists, yet it occurs to me that we have yet to make the acquaintance of many engineers. Today we'll put that right with the story of a Scottish gentleman who developed new techniques in road building, his influence still felt in modern times.

John McAdam was the son of Susan Cochrane and James McAdam, Baron of Waterhead, and as a child was educated at his local parish school, proving himself to be an intelligent, dedicated student. When he was just 14 his father died and the young man was sent to New York to live with his uncle. There he made his fortune as a merchant and financial wizard; he returned to Scotland as a man of means in 1783, becoming deeply immersed in local affairs and politics around his Ayrshire home. He developed new business interests upon his return, having a controlling interest in the Kairns Colliery and other industrial concerns. Not content with this, he acted as a magistrate and assumed other civic roles including one as as trustee of the Ayrshire Turnpike in 1783.

In fact, McAdam found his position as a trustee fascinating and he developed a deep and abiding interest in road construction and engineering, eventually becoming general surveyor for the Bristol Corporation in 1804. As the years went on he wrote papers on the subject and developed research that showed the benefits of raising roads and making them from layers of stone and gravel, as well as ensuring that drainage was a priority. Although he put his theories forward on numerous occasions no roads were developed in this way until McAdam was charged with remaking the Bristol Turnpike in 1816. Finally he was able to put his theories into practice, demonstrating the benefits of macadamisation, better known today as macadam. He received £5000 for this work, later cut to £2000 and his work made him numerous enemies on the Turnpike Trusts, who preferred to keep the money made from tolls rather than ploughing it back into road improvements.

Macadam caught on quickly and was soon in widespread international use; McAdam was offered and refused a knighthood two years prior to his death, an honour that one of his sons would later accept. McAdam lived to the age of 80 and died whilst travelling from his summer home in Scotland to his house in Hertfordshire. From his two marriages he had three sons and four grandsons, all of whom enjoyed successful careers in the road and turnpike business; not a bad legacy for the man behind macadam!


Unknown said...

We have some great engineers and I hope you feature Thomas Telford and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Catherine Curzon said...

Rest assured I will feature both!

The Greenockian said...

A great Scot! Wonder what he'd think about all the potholes we have now!

Catherine Curzon said...

He'd crack on and fill them, I'll wager!

Mari Christian said...

I wonder if McAdam ever dreamed that his name would still be in use today for the tar and gravel formula which he invented to construct curved roads. The Industrial Revolution was nourished by so many remarkable inventions.

Catherine Curzon said...

Hear hear!