The Origin of the Pothole

Car in PotholeThe severe winter weather has left our roads looking a little worse for wear. OK, a lot worse. Small bumps in the road have turned into massive craters just waiting to bend rims, flatten tires, and wreak havoc on suspensions. In some areas, literally entire sections of the road are missing. So as I was driving the other day, dodging potholes left and right, I thought to myself, “Why the heck do they call these craters in the road potholes?” They aren’t made by pots, they don’t look like pots, PennDot doesn’t fix them with pots. Who’s crazy idea was it to call them potholes? I asked a few people if they knew the answer to this nagging question of mine and nobody had a clue. So I did what any 21st century person would do: I Googled it. What I found was quite interesting so I’ve decided to share it with you.

Back in 15th and 16th century England, pottery makers would jump at the chance to obtain cheap raw materials for making clay pots. They often took advantage of ruts made in the roads by wagon and coach wheels. They would dig deeper into the ruts in an attempt to reach the clay deposits underneath. Those who drove on the roads knew that the ruts were made worse by the digging of the potters and thus the holes in the roads became known as potholes.

Obviously, the above scenario is not the cause of today’s potholes. These days, potholes occur when the material beneath the pavement can no longer support the weight of the traffic it carries. This is exacerbated by water and freeze/thaw cycles. Rain or snow seeps into cracks in the pavement and erodes the base layer causing a hole to form under the pavement. Repeated freeze/thaw cycles or traffic cause the ground to expand and push up the pavement. With temperature increases, the ground returns to its previous level, but the pavement does not drop, which results in a gap between the road surface and the ground below. Vehicles driving over the raised pavement cause the surface to crack and fall into the hollow area below the pavement, which creates the pothole. Now we can all stop blaming PennDot for poorly paved and constructed roads because it has nothing to do with that at all.

Pothole Formation

So as you’re driving around town dodging potholes and screaming expletives that nobody will hear, be grateful that at least they’re not caused by greedy English potters looking for cheap materials and that we have road crews in place who will eventually fix them for us.

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