Of Roman chariots, horses' asses, and politicians


Jan 1, 2010

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number.

Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England , and English expatriates built the US railroads.

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's the gauge they used.

Why did 'they' use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England ) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome , they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. Therefore the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot. Bureaucracies live forever.

So the next time you are handed a specification/procedure/process and wonder 'What horse's ass came up with it?', you may be exactly right. Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses. (Two horse's asses.)

Now, the twist to the story:

When you see a space shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRB's. The SRB's are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah . The engineers who designed the SRB's would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRB's had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRB's had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So, a major space shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's ass.

And you thought being a horse's ass wasn't important? Ancient horse's asses control almost everything... and CURRENT Horses Asses are controlling everything else.
Thank you, Sara. I enjoyed that and it amused me. And I think it must have amused the people at Snopes too because while here.... http://www.snopes.com/history/american/gauge.asp ...they classify the story as "False" they go on to say "This is one of those items that - although wrong in many of its details - isn't exactly false in an overall sense and is perhaps more fairly labelled as 'True, but for trivial and unremarkable reasons.'" And as their explanation is written in the same jovial style, I was amused by that too.
The piece was posted in fun, but perhaps there is some truth in that story about railroad gauges and horses’ asses.

I had to take a History of Design course while in college. There was an interesting chapter about the persistence of shapes, and how designers cling to old designs despite technological advances.

For instance, the shafts of classic Greek colums have vertical grooves. Those grooves were copied from earlier wooden columns, which in turn were copied from still earlier Egyptian columns. In lowland areas trees were very scarce, and the enterprising Egyptians tied up bundles of dry reeds to make their columns. The marble vertical grooves are throwbacks to those lake reeds.

Another example is the first arch bridge made out of cast iron, over the Severn River, in England. It was designed and built just like older wood bridges, using carpentry techniques. The bridge is heavily overengineered, using much more iron than needed - it took a while for builders to realize that iron was stronger than wood.

My apologies for this thread, which has nothing to do with Buenos Aires expat life. But it has a lot to do with human stubbornness, easily found in BA, too.
History of design. Ah yes: things like the Golden Section which still look right - even to modern eyes.

Actually, I only replied to your original article because it was the first one I'd seen in the World Politics forum for a long time that didn't seem either to be written by someone with flecks of foam in the corner of their mouth or designed to provoke the same from the readership. (My apologies to any non-foaming contributors that I may have missed)

Actually, the other reason I replied was because at the time I read it, chronologically it ought to have been sandwiched between two other stories on the home page but didn't seem to have made it there at all. And the reason for this reply is more about seeing where it appears than having anything useful to say!

Have a nice day!
Well, I find it more interesting than expanding on the awfulness of different pizza places. But I'm definitely in the minority.