Edgar Hooley: the man who paved the way


Tarmac. It’s not the most auspicious stuff.

You probably see it – or drive over it - every day. It takes us up and down the country, and yet we don’t really pay attention to it (unless there are potholes).

But this substance is a hugely valuable part of our roads and highways. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to travel across different terrains in all weathers – and we wouldn’t get very far without having to change our tires.

So, in this week’s instalment of the innovators series, I think it’s time to celebrate Edgar Hooley, the unsung hero behind tarmac - who literally paved the way for us to get from A to B.

Just an accident

The idea for a ‘macadamised’ road surface did not start with Hooley.

It originated with John McAdam, who built roads out of crushed stones in the late nineteenth century. He called this substance ‘macadam’, after his own surname.

The simple stone macadam was fine in the era of horse and carriages, but as more and more motor vehicles hit the roads, it became clear that something new was needed.

It was at this point that Edgar Hooley made his amazing discovery completely by chance.

In 1901, he was working as a surveyor in Denby in Derbyshire. Walking past an ironworks, he noticed that the road was unusually smooth.

Locals told him that this had happened after a barrel of tar had been dropped on the road. After the spillage, somebody had covered the tar with small pieces of ‘slag’ (broken up stones) from the ironworks.

This created an incredibly durable surface, with a soft stickiness that cushioned and protected wheels. Plus, it remained dust and mud free, even in the worst of storms.

So, in 1902 he patented this accidental creation and called it tarmac – adding ‘tar’ to the ‘macadam’.

Then he tarmacked his first road: Radcliffe Road in Nottingham.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

The road to the future

It’s amazing to think how different our world would be without Hooley’s accidental discovery.

Having a reliable road surface has been key to the way the UK has developed. It’s allowed us to connect all parts of the country, and transport people and things long distances very quickly.

And now it seems that roads are set to change again, with the introduction of connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs).

CAVs are capable of manoeuvring much more precisely than cars driven by human drivers. The vehicle is connected to its surroundings, meaning it knows where the other cars on the road are situated to within the smallest millimetre.

This means we might not need so much space on our roads, since CAVs should be able to drive close together and execute tight turns, where human drivers need to be given more room. It’s something we could look to explore through tests at the Smart Mobility Living Lab.

In the meantime, it’s great to be celebrating some of history’s innovators. Edgar Hooley was a journey maker who helped get us here today – now it’s our job to take it forward.

Don’t forget to check out the previous instalment in the innovator series, when we looked at the amazing women responsible for one of London’s most famous landmarks and important highways: Waterloo Bridge.