Laboratory Routes: The Science Behind Road-Building, 1923-1939
Scientific laboratories dedicated to road research (broadly defined) were established in Britain from the 1920s. This paper examines these laboratories, set up in the first instance by the Road Board, and subsequently the governmental organisations of the DSIR and Ministry of Transport, respectively, over the early decades of the twentieth century. I question why these laboratories were set up by the government and touch upon the laboratory work taking place worldwide – specifically in America, France and Germany – to provide a relative cross-comparison concerning the importance attributed to the study and investigation of roads.
By exploring the experimental work undertaken by the British road laboratories we can deduce the focus of laboratory investigations and how this may be indicative of contemporary concerns relating to the maintenance and construction of roadways. For example, I will explore the implications of the extensive work undertaken regarding surface dressings to engineer a pragmatic and durable road surface which prevented dust clouds and reduced skidding in wet weather. Examining the processes by which road investigative work was conducted and for what purpose reveals the core elements which concerned road researchers in early twentieth-century Britain. Exploring the testing work conducted at the road research laboratories, and its subsequent capabilities for application in the road construction industry, facilitates an examination of the dynamic interaction between society and road technology (yet to be explored in the Histories of Science and Technology).
This paper contributes to the overall aim of my thesis to understand how the British road network was designed, for what purpose, and to consider how this was shaped and moulded by social and political pressures, attitudes and movements. Thus, this work examines new possibilities of how roads became part of everyday life in twentieth-century Britain.