Friday, November 12, 2010


Here's one that's been going around the Internet for a couple years . . . a colleague of my Dad sent it to me - like myself, a soldier and an engineer - and I knocked it back, said, "Yeah, I've seen that - but when I checked up on it, there was something wrong with it . . ."

Scroll all the way through it, and get to the investigative part at the end.

Sean Linnane

Railroad Tracks.

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? Because that's the way they built them in England , and English expatriates designed 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 '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 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 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 (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. 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?

OK now we've had our little laugh - I first saw this one come across the email machine a couple years back, and I remembered there was a problem with it then . . .

So I gave the STORMBRINGER Operations and Intelligence Organization a research assignment:

The Width of Railroad Tracks based on a History that Extends Back to Roman Chariots

. . . and this is what they came up with:


The Truth

There is no evidence that we could find that this is true. An article on by D. Gabe Gabriel says this tale has existed since shortly after World War II but that history does not support the claims of the story. The Roman ruts, according to Gabriel, were not for chariots but for narrow, hand-pulled carts. Although there are many places where the ruts are visible, Gabriel questions that they played a role in English railroad standards 1400 years after the last Roman legions. One of the claims is that the width of the ruts was affected by the need to make the chariot and it's wheels the same width as the combined rears of the horses pulling them. Gabriel says there's a statue by Franzoni in the Vatican museum that is regarded as the most accurate known depiction of a Roman chariot. The two horses are wider than the chariot and the chariot wheels behind them.

Where did the four-foot, eight-and-a-half-inch standard originate? Gabriel says it was from a Englishman named George Stephenson. Carts on rails had been used in mines in England for years, but the width of the rails varied from mine to mine since they didn't share tracks. Stephenson was the one who started experimenting with putting a steam engine on the carts so there would be propulsion to pull them along. He had worked with several mines with differing gauges and simply chose to make the rails for his project 4-foot, eight inches wide. He later decided that adding another six inches made things easier. He was later consulted for constructing some rails along a roadway and by the time broader plans for railroads in Great Britain were proposed, there were already 1200 miles of his rails so the "Stephenson gauge" became the standard.

Interestingly, the 4-foot, eight-and-a-half inch width has not always been the standard in the U.S. According to the Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography, at the beginning of the Civil War, there were more than 20 different gauges ranging from 3 to 6 feet, although the 4-foot, eight-and-a-half inch was the most widely used. During the war, any supplies transported by rail had to be transferred by hand whenever a car on one gauge encountered track of another gauge and more than 4,000 miles of new track was laid during the war to standardize the process. Later, Congress decreed that the 4-foot, eight-and-a-half inch standard would be used for transcontinental railway.

So now you know . . . hope this clears things up for you.



1 comment:

  1. Er, yes, perfectly clear.

    It sounds simple, but consider that there's a mile of wire in a screen door.