Concrete has been used as a material for thousands of years. But reinforced concrete – concrete with steel embedded in it – is a much more recent invention. It didn’t start to be used until the mid 1800’s (it’s first use is usually traced to some reinforced garden tubs built in France), and it was years after that before people started using it effectively.
One of the first “modern” systems of reinforced concrete was the Ransome system, invented by Ernest Ransome in 1884. This system was distinguished by using twisted steel bars to improve their bond with the concrete.
Engineers are sort of skeptical of new technology by nature (and by incentive), and reinforced concrete (including the Ransome system) wasn’t any different. Up through the end of the 19th century it remained unpopular to use as a building material, being used for foundations but not much else. Most building codes didn’t even recognize it.
One of the few buildings made of reinforced concrete during this period was a museum on the Stanford campus, built in 1891 using the Ransome system. Reinforced concrete was chosen for it’s speed – it could be put up much quicker than a traditional masonry building. It was later enlarged with wings on either side, but these were built of conventional masonry construction and built to match the appearance of the original building.
In 1906, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the San Francisco bay area. Thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed by the shaking and the subsequent fires. The wings of the Stanford museum, built out of masonry, were reduced to rubble. But the original reinforced concrete structure suffered no damage at all.
Unreinforced masonry (masonry with no steel embedded in it) is perhaps the worst possible material to use if you want your building to survive an earthquake. As the building shakes back and forth, parts of it are put in tension which normally only see compression. Masonry is exceptionally weak in tension, but reinforced concrete, with it’s steel skeleton, is far more resilient. Engineers inspecting the Stanford Museum, built using the Ransome system, were impressed with how little damage it suffered.
Buildings are designed to survive worst-case loading that, in all likelihood, they’ll never see. Because of this, engineering practice tends to proceed one disaster at a time. The success of the Stanford Museum (and other reinforced concrete buildings in the bay area) helped popularize reinforced concrete as a building material. And modern steel reinforcing is specifically designed and shaped to grip the concrete, like Ransome’s bars were.