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Originating in Leeds

Joseph Aspdin and Portland Cement

John Smeaton, while preparing for his work on the Eddystone Lighthouse, recorded a series of experiments which led to his devising a mixture of limestone and clay which was resistant to water. This is believed to be the first modern concrete.


Joseph Aspdin was born in Leeds in 1779 and learned his trade as a bricklayer and plasterer. He was no doubt aware of the work of Smeaton and others who had attempted to improve on Smeaton’s work. In experiments in his own kitchen, Aspdin himself found that by heating clay and limestone at a very high temperature and then cooling and grinding and mixing it with water he had created a particularly strong cement.


He named it Portland Cement after Portland stone (a famous type of stone used for building work which was quarried on the island of Portland off the coast of Dorset) – some say because it was a similar colour when dry, and some say it was because it dried as hard as stone. Either way, this was seen as a good marketing tactic - linking his product in people’s minds with a well-established and popular product.


Aspdin was granted a patent in 1824 (GB 5022 of 1824) for “An improvement in the modes of producing an artificial stone” – a very brief specification in which he refers to the product as Portland cement. 


Aspdin set up a company in Kirkgate, Wakefield in 1825 to begin producing his Portland cement. He was closely involved in the whole process and was very careful about who he would allow into the factory, fearing that someone else might steal his ideas.

Joseph’s sons, James and William, worked with him and developed the business, setting up further cement works round the country. William became involved with Isambard Kingdom Brunel when Brunel and his father were building their Thames Tunnel (the first major engineering project which Isambard had worked on). Brunel used the cement within the tunnel and this is believed to be Portland cement’s first large scale application.


Joseph Aspdin died at home in Wakefield on 20 March 1855.

Document icon Learning article provided by: Leeds Library and Information Service | 

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