i (i) wrote,

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Does the expression, "We've always done it that way!" ring any bells?

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet,
8.5 inches. That is an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used?
Because that is 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 is 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 the same 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 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,
everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels.
Since the chariots were made for (and by) Imperial Rome, they all had
the same wheel spacing.

Therefore, the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5
inches is derived 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. This is because the Imperial Roman war chariots
were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two

Now, the twist to the story... There is 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 tank. These are solid rocket boosters,
or SRBs. Thiokol makes the SRBs at their factory at 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 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 is about
as wide as two horses' behinds.

So, a 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 horse's ass.

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