Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Horsey Truth about Railroads

Received this in an email today. It's long, but worth reading!


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 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 '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 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, 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. 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 that's what the Imperial Roman army figured. Chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.

Now, the twist to the story.

When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launchpad, 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 at 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.

- And - You thought being a HORSE'S ASS wasn't important!


I laughed so hard when I read this!!! But then I wondered, how many things do we do today simply because that's the way they've "always" been done? How many things we just blindly follow without even once asking why?


  1. Hehe...I've read it before.
    Seriously, so many things we just blindly follow in the name of rules & traditions.
    oops just realised that I wrote the same things as u;-P

  2. Interesting to see horse - asses in this new, historic light. I guess there'd be some similar if less interesting reason as to why the CD/DVD disc is in the shape/size it is. I guess once a standard has been established, it stays put because it spawns an industry around that standardization.

  3. @ Reflections - :D

    @ Aries - very true....and the only way the old standard goes is if some new radical technology renders it obsolete.

  4. he heee never heard of it before and so damn funny..... well.... how fascinating right? this will be a great dinner conversation

  5. Preethi - it is very fascinating....and we did have a nice discussion over it at home, though not over dinner :)