carl william spitzer iv
cwsiv_2nd at JUNO.COM
Tue Oct 3 19:02:54 MDT 2000
The US standard railroad gauge (width between the two 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 the
railroads were built by English expatriates.
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.
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
So who built those old rutted roads? The first long dis-
tance roads in Europe (and England) were built by Imperial
Rome for their legions. The roads have been used ever
since. And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots first
formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match
for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chari-
ots were made for (or by) Imperial Rome, they were all alike
in the matter of wheel spacing. The United States standard
railroad gauge of 4 feet,
8.5 inches derives from the original specification for an
Imperial Roman war chariot.
Specifications and bureaucracies live forever. So the next
time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse's
ass came up with it, you may be exactly right, because the
Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to
accommodate the back ends of two war horses. Thus, we have
the answer to the original question.
Now the twist to the story..............
There's an interesting extension to the story about railroad
gauges and horses' behinds. When we 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 Thio-
kol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed
the SRBs might 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 had 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 is about as wide as
two horses' behinds. So, the major 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
A few more burgers and we can measure Klinton. CWSIV
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