The tale of concrete cities

Table of contents

Acknowledgments List of Figures
Chapter 1 – Industry on Fire
Chapter 2 – Kahn and Kahn
Chapter 3 – Experimental Methods
Chapter 4 – A Breakthrough
Chapter 5 – Stress and Innovation
Chapter 6 – Seeking Profit
Chapter 7 – Growth
Chapter 8 – Big Changes for a Big Industry
Chapter 9 – Fatal Mistakes
Chapter 10 – Bridge to the Future
Chapter 11 – Tested by Conflagration
Chapter 12 – Dominating the Market


At the turn of the 20th century, industrial manufacturing was expanding dramatically while factory buildings remained fire-prone relics of an earlier age. That is, until a 28-year-old civil engineer finally achieved what engineers around the world had unsuccessfully attempted. Working in his brother’s basement in Detroit, Julius Kahn invented the first practical and scientific method of reinforcing concrete with steel bars, which finally made it possible to construct strong, fireproof buildings. After Kahn founded a company in 1903 to manufacture and sell his reinforcement bars, his system of construction became the most widely used throughout the world. 

Drawing upon Kahn’s personal correspondence, architectural drawings, company records, and contemporary news and journal articles, Michael G. Smith reveals how this man—whose family had immigrated to the US to escape antisemitism in Germany—played an important role in the rise of concrete. Concrete not only turned the tide against widespread destruction of buildings by fire, it also paved the way for our modern economy. Concrete Century will delight readers intrigued by architecture and construction technology alike with the true origin story of modern concrete buildings.

Michael G. Smith is an architectural historian and the author of Designing Detroit: Wirt Rowland and the Rise of Modern American Architecture (2017). 

“Julius Kahn is one of the unsung heroes of America’s industrial expansion. Working with his brother, architect Albert Kahn, Julius perfected the building material known as reinforced concrete to enable titans like Henry Ford to build modern factories worldwide. Michael Smith tells Julius’s story in fascinating detail.”

- John Gallagher, author of Yamasaki in Detroit: A Search for Serenity

“We live in a world of reinforced concrete, but rarely think about the origins of this industrial innovation. Michael G. Smith’s definitive history of this technology and the life of its principal inventor, Julius Kahn, who fostered a twentieth-century construction revolution, is superbly documented and well-written. It is an important addition to the historiography of America.”

- Mike O. Smith, Alene and Graham Landau Archivist, Detroit Jewish News Foundation