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Joseph Aspdin and the invention and production of Portland cement

Celebrating the bicentenary of the patent for Portland cement with a revealing look at evidence about the material, its invention in Hunslet and production in Wakefield

21 Oct 2024



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On the bicentenary of his patent, come and join us to see evidence that appears to confirm that Joseph Aspdin invented Portland cement the material (and not just the name), and that identifies its probable origin in Hunslet.

The talk will be given by Professor Ian G. Richardson, University of Leeds. The presentation features research from a project also involving Xiaohong Zhu, Paul L. Dawson, Phil Judkins and Mark J. Richardson.

Details of venue at the University of Leeds to be confirmed.

Portland cement has been central to the development of the modern world, with billions of tonnes now used annually. It is perhaps surprising therefore that its early history is shrouded in mystery, and that there is no consensus about the identity of the inventor. Whilst Joseph Aspdin, a bricklayer from Hunslet, Leeds, was granted a British patent in 1824 for a material that he called Portland cement, conclusions differ considerably on how similar Joseph’s material would have been to the Portland cement that is in use today. For example, Blezard (1998) believed that Joseph had produced “Nothing more than a hydraulic lime”, whereas Skempton (1962) stated that “The truth would seem to be that the ‘break-through’ [of clinkering] had been made by 1843 at the latest, and more probably a good deal earlier by the elder Aspdin [i.e. by Joseph rather than his son William].”

We recently acquired a sample of render from a former public house that is widely considered to be “…the only surviving example of a building covered with Joseph Aspdin’s patent Portland cement” (Historic England List Entry 1245773). In this lecture, I shall present results from our microstructural characterization of that sample combined with historical research and demonstrate that Joseph most likely did invent Portland cement the material as well as the name. The evidence includes contemporary images that indicate that the second of his kilns in Wakefield would have been able to reach the high temperatures that are necessary to produce Portland cement, and records that provide information about his time in Leeds, including about the probable origin of his invention in Hunslet.

Ian Richardson is Professor of Civil Engineering Materials at the University of Leeds, UK. He received a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford in 1991 and has been at Leeds since 1995. He is a materials scientist whose main research interests concern advancing understanding of the microstructure, chemistry and properties of cementitious materials and related phases. He is perhaps best known for his work on the composition, morphology, and nanostructure of the main binding phase in concrete. He has given numerous invited contributions at conferences or congresses. He is the Chairman of the Cementitious Materials Subgroup of the UK’s Institute of Materials, Minerals & Mining, and he is currently revising Taylor’s classic book Cement Chemistry.

At the end of the talk, Geoff Driver, a trustee of the Joseph Aspdin Skills Trust, will say a few words about their project with Leeds College of Building.

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