The four primary materials used for bridges have been wood, stone, iron, and concrete. Of these, iron has had the greatest effect on modern bridges. From iron, steel is made, and steel is used to make reinforced and prestressed concrete. Modern bridges are almost exclusively built with steel, reinforced concrete, and prestressed concrete.
Wood and stone
Wood is relatively weak in both compression and tension, but it has almost always been widely available and inexpensive. Wood has been used effectively for small bridges that carry light loads, such as footbridges. Engineers now incorporate laminated wooden beams and arches into some modern bridges.
Stone is strong in compression but weak in tension. Its primary application has been in arches, piers, and abutments.
Iron and steel
The first iron used during the Industrial Revolution was cast iron, which is strong in compression but weak in tension. Wrought iron, on the other hand, is as strong in compression as cast iron, but it also has much greater tensile strength. Steel is an even further refinement of iron and is yet stronger, superior to any iron in both tension and compression. Steel can be made to varying strengths, some alloys being five times stronger than others. The engineer refers to these as high-strength steels.
Concrete is an artificial stone made from a mixture of water, sand, gravel, and a binder such as cement. Like stone, it is strong in compression and weak in tension. Concrete with steel bars embedded in it is called reinforced concrete. Reinforcement allows for less concrete to be used because the steel carries all the tension; also, the concrete protects the steel from corrosion and fire.
Prestressed concrete is an important variation of reinforced concrete. A typical process, called post-tensioned prestressing, involves casting concrete beams with longitudinal holes for steel tendons—cables or bars—like reinforced concrete, but the holes for the tendons are curved upward from end to end, and the tendons, once fitted inside, are stretched and then anchored at the ends. The tendons, now under high tension, pull the two anchored ends together, putting the beam into compression. In addition, the curved tendons exert an upward force, and the designer can make this upward force counteract much of the downward load expected to be carried by the beam. Prestressed concrete reduces the amount of steel and concrete needed in a structure, leading to lighter designs that are often less expensive than designs of reinforced concrete.