We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
Our Recent Essays Behind the Front Page
Monday, September 6. 2021
Reader sent us this info:
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?
Well, because that's the way they built them in England, and English engineers designed the first US railroads.
Why did the English build them like that?
Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the wagon tramways, and that's the gauge they used.
So, why did 'they' use that gauge then?
Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they had used for building wagons, which used that same 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 more often on some of the old, long distance roads in England . You see, 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 (including England ) for their legions. Those roads have been used ever since.
And what about the ruts in the roads?
Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match or run the risk 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 this?', you may be exactly right. Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses. (Two horses' 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 SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah . The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs 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 SRBs 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......
Display comments as (Linear | Threaded)
I always listened carefully while watching Mr. Ed as a kiddiewink.
Reminds me of my description of a grown man with a ponytail: "He is NOT a horse's head."
Back when the rocks were still soft in the middle, and jokes or memes were circulated by fax machine, I remember getting this one by fax. Somewhere along the line, I believe I remember reading a pretty thorough de-bunking of it, but it's one of those semi-plausible memes that's too good to double-check...
I'd read this many years ago, and had looked into it. It's a great story, but only partially true.
The gauge is inferred to be based on this width because of the ruts along Hadrian's Wall, the width of which were designed for Roman chariots, and it matched the gauge used by most English wheeled transport - which carried over to the development of rail gauges.
That said, prior to the Civil War, there was no standardized gauge in the US and simply saying this gauge carried over to the US due to bureaucracy isn't correct. The gauge was more a result of the Civil War. The Confederacy had 3 different gauges, even though most of its rail material and knowledge had come from the North. This impaired the movement of men and goods throughout the war, whereas the North had mostly standardized gauges. The completion of the war and rebuilding of rails destroyed by Sherman and others led to a standard gauge adoption.
The basis of the claim is directionally correct. It does show that humans are stubborn and often unwilling to change. But, then again, sometimes a standard makes sense and can carry on for a very long time.
The cup, the spoonful - while their standardization wasn't codified until 1898, they were in use for many years prior. After all, in 1215, the Magna Carta dictated that a set of standard measures be laid out for the entire nation - not a bad idea, when you think about it.
re After all, in 1215, the Magna Carta dictated that a set of standard measures be laid out for the entire nation - not a bad idea, when you think about it.
Standardizing Time turned out to be a good idea as well, though there probably wasn't much need for it in 1215.
Railroad gauge standardization was one of the original 'network effects'. As soon as interchange of carload freight became practicable and railroads weren't just a means to get freight to the nearest river or ocean port, transportation costs dropped exponentially. The 4 foot 8 and 1/2 inch gauge was specified in the Pacific Railroad Act and that probably had more to do with standardization than the Civil War since a variety of gauges continued in use after it. The South didn't standardize until a massive region wide effort in June 1886, and actually used 4 foot 9 inches as was used by the Pennsylvania Railroad at the time, which was close enough. Smaller gauges in the 2-3 foot range continued to be popular until the dawn of the 20th Century and beyond due to lower construction costs. Most of those lines were either widened or abandoned by the middle of the 20th Century, however.
I was never a fan of the Space Shuttle because the design seems to have fallen victim to too many compromises, the worst being a lack of a viable launch escape system coupled with those SRBs that didn't like the cold.
Each of the links of the chain depends on the previous one. Even if each is very likely, they are cumulatively unlikely, as when a two successive 70% chances result in a less than 50% probability. I think each of these is at least a bit better chance than 70%, some as much as 90%. But strung together, alternatives are likely.
Romans didn’t use “war chariots.” When Caesar encountered people who still did—namely the Celtic Britons—it was a remarkable novelty, as the only example the Romans had ever seen. He calls it out expressly in De Bello Gallico. Briton chariot fighters were subsequently displayed in arena combats in Rome. But nobody else used chariots for war, and the Romans never had. So this is simply not true. Roman carts carrying the legionary baggage (“impedimentia”) would be a probable origin for the ruts.
I've always loved that joke. As inaccurate as it may or may not be; something about it is just wonderful.