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.
I was drifting around the backwaters of my site a while ago and came across this old gem. Thought it deserved another run through the grist mill.
The US standard railroad gauge (the distance between the rails) is 4 feet, eight and a half inches.
That's an exceedingly odd number. Why is 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 the trams use that gauge? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.
Okay! 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 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. 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're handed a spec and are told "We've always done it this way", and you wonder what horse's ass came up with it, you may be exactly right. The Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.
Now a 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. 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.
A wonderfull series of facts. Please, can you write the gauge as four feet eight and a half inches. Thank you. Regards, Nigel. PS dont forget the Great Western gauge of seven feet and a quarter of an inch.
While Snopes does not exactly fully debunk this "urban legend" despite labeling it "False", they do provide an well done (IMHO) argument about why such things occur. They do claim the Thiekol/Space Shuttle thing is pretty much nonsense.
I like the argument they put forth. Judge for yourself.
Nigel - Done! I have no idea what difference it makes, but the request was harmless enough.
Knucks - I knew Snopes had debunked it, but it's such a fun story that it really doesn't matter. Which was kinda their point in the article. Nobody really gives a shit about railroad track gauges, but everybody loves the idea of a space shuttle part being dictated by a horse's rear end 2,000 years ago.
As far as the tunnel story goes, though, they kind of waffled a bit on it. I remember hearing about the tunnel back when the shuttle program was first (literally and figuratively) getting off the ground, so I'm inclined to think there's a grain of truth to it. Maybe it'll turn out there actually is a narrow, 1-track tunnel, and it actually was a really tight fit, but it didn't actually inhibit the design team.
I just thought of another Snopes-worthy article I've got on my site -- we'll do that tomorrow.
One of the Russian Czars apparently chose to build Russia's railroads on a nonstandard (wider) gauge, on the theory that it would help prevent invasion. Whether or not this was actually the motivation for the Russian track gauge, it did turn out to be very helpful during WWII, when there were immense German supply bottlenecks as the break-of-gauge points.
IIRC, Russian gauge (5') was one of the standards competing for acceptance back in the day and happened to gain traction in Russia because the first rail line used it. Wikipedia claims it was also widespread in the southern US at the time. There are many other gauges in various places.
Spain and France have different gauges, which means you have to change trains at the border. Naturally, the schedules do not synch up, so you spend some time hanging out in the station in the middle of the night with the junkies and beggars.
More fun is Australia, who doesn't care about Romans, wagons or Russians. Each major state built its own railroad in the 19th C without any consideration of connectivity, and so three different gauges were built:
Standard gauge – 1,435 mm (4 ft 8+1?2 in) of which there are 17,678 km of track - mainly New South Wales and the interstate rail network.
Narrow gauge (Cape gauge) – 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) with 15,160 km - mainly Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania as well as some of South Australia
Broad gauge (Irish gauge) – 1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in) with 4,017 km - mainly Victoria, some South Australia, some New South Wales.
In 1912, they saw they had a problem, so the government studied what to do, and in the meantime tracks were build where needed with four rails which could carry all three train types (tho not connected to each other).
By 2005, the Romans had won, and standard gauge is almost everywhere. It had only taken 93 years. We will send Bird Dog a diagram of how those four rails worked.
As you probably know, the couple who are Snopes have a far-left bias, and anything accusing governments of inefficiency in management drives them crazy.
I felt, however, that they admit the essential part of the story. Axle-makers who started building rail axles used equipment they had used to build wagon axles, so 4' 8.5" was the result.
As Snopes says and as Kondratieff points out below, there were also two other main gauges (wide & narrow), but c'mon Snopes, lighten up and don't shriek "False" when you admit the facts and disagree with some speculative conclusions!