Standardization History Lesson


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The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4’ 8.5”. That is an exceedingly odd number.

Why was that gauge used?

It is because that was the way railways were built in England, and British expatriates built the US railroads.

So why did the English build them like that?

This is because the first rail lines were constructed by the same people who built the pre-railroad horse drawn 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.

Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular odd width between the wheels?

Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would not match the ruts on the old, long distance highways.

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 became the standard rut. Otherwise your wagon would not fit and would break. And, long before the EU, it was the same standard for the whole of Europe.

The USA standard railroad gauge of 4’ 8.5” is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot.

And why pray did the Imperial Roman war chariots come up with this standard size. Easy. So that two Imperial Roman horses could fit into the shafts of an Imperial Roman war chariot (or the back end of two war horses if you prefer).

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 in a 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. 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 worlds most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s rear.

And you thought you had trouble with standardization!

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I haven't read the snopes article yet, but I'm aware of at least two discontinuities in the story without even doing any research. 1 is the transfer of the wagon wheel gauge to the first rail lines, and 2. the original North American railroad gauges to the present day one.

O.K. now I've read it. The most telling statement is: [ QUOTE ]
Marvelling that the width of modern roadways is similar to the width of ancient roadways is sort of like getting excited over a notion such as "modern clothes sizes are based upon standards developed by medieval tailors." Well, duh.

[/ QUOTE ]