Saturday 20 September 2014

The Scottish Colossus of Roads


Alex Salmond’s best line in the Independence campaign was to remind those who questioned the Scots’ competence to run an economy that Adam Smith, 'Father of Modern Economics' and author of The Wealth of Nations (1776), was born in Fife. Other influential Scots could be produced as evidence of that nation’s historic contribution in any field of endeavour.

Take the Colossus of Roads. This was the unofficial title bestowed on John Loudon McAdam, who dominated the world of road technology in the late 18th and 19th centuries and is here caricatured in a famous print by Henry Heath. Heath drew both on his viewers’ stereotypes of Scots and on their knowledge of the lost colossal statue of the Sun which the Sun-worshipping Rhodians of the third century BC erected in their harbour to celebrate the defence of their island from Macedonian strongmen.

'Colossus of Rhodes' by Maerten van Heemskerck (1570)
The reason why the road you walk/drive/cycle/sit in a bus on is neither a Pleistocene mud-bath in winter nor a dust-bowl in summer, as in the two roads leading to the left and right of the cartoon, is McAdam. His innovation was to use several layers of very small stones, bound with a cementing agent, to form a crust; provided the road was built above the water table, it did not need to be raised above the pre-existing path nor be given a steep camber.

Road Obsessive
McAdam was born 258 years ago today in an Ayrshire castle. He was incredibly famous and his name became synonymous with inventions of any kind. He was also a monomaniacal obsessive, who spent his entire life and his personal fortune developing his revolutionary technology.  In 1827 his efforts and expenditure paid off: he was appointed General Surveyor of Roads and given a government pay-out of £10,000. The 1827 cartoon here, through the word ‘mock’ and the money-bags he clutches, implies that the expenses he claimed were not entirely legitimate.

Worked literally to death
The cartoon's pictured windmill, ‘Breakstone Mill’, is comically threatening to raise his kilt. Beneath him sit two poor labourers, for the small size of the stones McAdam roads used (they had to be small enough to fit in the worker's mouth) had exponentially increased the work required. Road-making swiftly became associated with the legal sentence of Hard Labour. Henry Wallis’ tragic Stonebreaker (1857)in Birmingham City Art Gallery, was sometimes entitled ‘Helotage’, thus comparing the tragic road-labourer to a helot, an abused slave in ancient Sparta. McAdam used his brain and fortune well, but that did not prevent technological progress in the industrial revolution from coming at a terrible human price. 

1 comment:

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