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What’s Our Roman Concrete?

Roman concrete, manufactured 2,000 years ago, may help solve modern problems.

According to the Washington Post, scientists are investigating how ancient harbor concrete, made from “a mixture of volcanic ash and quicklime,” has endured in seawater for centuries.

“It’s the most durable building material in human history,” one scientist said.

Seawater wreaks havoc on modern concrete, yet the ancient stuff survives. Scientists are trying to replicate this lost recipe to provide long-term protection from rising seas. As the article notes, coastal flooding “could do trillions of dollars in damage annually.” More durable concrete may help mitigate those costs.

What is Kentucky’s “Roman concrete”?

The Bluegrass State has its own list of inventors and innovators, who, like Roman builders, created products that have endured.

At the turn of the 20th century, Murray native Nathan B. Stubblefield astounded the public by demonstrating a wireless telephone. In 1902, Stubblefield’s phone transmitted up to a mile away. While other inventors also worked on wireless transmissions, in 1991 Gov. Wallace Wilkinson proclaimed Stubblefield to be “the true inventor of radio." Today, echoes of Stubblefield’s work are found in mobile phones.

A century ago, Bourbon County-native Garrett A. Morgan invented a product that has saved thousands of lives: the gas mask. In 1916, Morgan used his invention to rescue several men from a smoke-filled tunnel. The military later modified his “safety hood” into the gas mask, which has shielded innumerable soldiers from the ravages of poison gas. Today, firefighters and rescue workers use breathing apparatuses to protect themselves and save members of the public. Morgan’s important invention endures.

Industrial hemp used to be a major cash crop for Kentucky, and modern hemp advocates tout many uses for its fiber, seeds and oil. Like Roman concrete, might this historic plant bolster Kentucky’s economy and meet unforeseen future needs?

Our history—and Kentucky’s past inventors and crops—can help us tackle today’s problems. If ancient engineers hold the key to shoring up coastal areas, then Kentucky’s past can surely guide decision makers as they work to solve today’s problems.


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