I’ve Been Working On The Railroad…

So here’s an interesting bit of history that is still in effect today that you may find interesting….The US Standard railroad gauge (the distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an odd number isn’t it? Why was that gauge used? Because that’s the way they built them in England, and English expatriates designed the railroads here in America. Now we’re going to go on a little history trip….

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

So why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? If they had tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England because of that the spacing of the wheel ruts. So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance road in Europe (including England) for their legions. Those 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.

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 war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses. (two horses’ asses.)

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 they 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 just learned, is about as wide as two horses’ asses.

So, a major space shuttle design feature of what is arguable the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago.


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