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Monday, July 3

Railway gauge

The United States standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet 8.5 inches: an exceedingly odd number. (And it doesn't get better in metric: 1.44 metres.) So: why that particular gauge?

Because: that was how they built them in England, and English expatriates built the United States railroads.

So: why did the English build them like that?

Because: the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that is the gauge they used.

So: why did they use that gauge?

Because: the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which had that same wheel-spacing.

So: why did the wagons use that particular wheel-spacing?

Because: if the wagonwrights tried to use any other spacing, the wagon-wheels would break on some of the old, long-distance roads in England, because that is the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So: who designed those old rutted roads?

The first long-distance roads in England and Europe were built by Imperial Rome for their legions. These roads have been used ever since. And the ruts? Well, it was the Roman war-chariots that made the ruts on the Roman roads -- ruts which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels and wagons. Since the chariots were all made for, or by, the Imperial Roman government, they all had the same wheel-spacing.

Thus: the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot. (Which only goes to show that specifications, policies, and bureaucracies live forever.) So the next time you are handed a specification or official policy and wonder what bunch of horses' rear ends ever came up with it in the first place ... you may be exactly right. After all, the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war-horses.

And now, a twist:

The solid rocket boosters (SRBs) attached to the sides of the space shuttle's main fuel tank are made in Utah by a company called Thiokol. The engineers actually wanted to make them even bigger and wider than they are, but the SRBs have to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site, and the track runs through a tunnel in the mountains. The tunnel is just slightly wider than the railroad track ... which is built to standard gauge.

Thus: the major design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced system of transportation was determined over two millennia ago ... by horses' asses!


... historical analysis of this urban legend can be found here

1 Comments:

Blogger Tenebris said...

Fingers crossed, for the July 4 launch and a safe mission.

3:17 PM  

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