Does the statement, “We’ve always done it that way,” ring any bells?
Well, consider this. The US standard railway gauge (the distance between the rails) is 4ft 8Yzin. I am sure you will agree that is an extremely odd measurement. And why was that gauge used? Because that was the way they built them in England and it was English expatriates who built the early US Railway system.
So why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the prerailway tramways, and that was the gauge that they used.
But why I can hear you ask, did “they” use that gauge? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that were used for building the vehicles, which used that wheel spacing.
Fair enough, but why did the vehicles have that particularly odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would have broken on some of the old, long-distance roads in England at that time, and that was the spacing of the wheel ruts.
So who built those old rutted roads? Well that was down to Imperial Rome. The Romans built the first long-distance roads in Europe (and of course in 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 identical in the matter of wheel spacing. Thus, the United States standard railway gauge of 4ft 8Yzin is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot, and of course as you all well know (being graduates of Trade Groups 17 and 18) bureaucracies live for ever! So the next time you are hear about a specification and wonder which “horse’s arse” came up with it, you may well be closer to the truth than you imagine, because the Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two Imperial Roman war-horses.
Now for the twist in the story. When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, you will see that there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. Thiokol makes the SRBs 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 railway line from the factory to the launch site happens to run through a particular tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railway track and the railway track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses’ arse ends.
Thus, a major Space Shuttle design feature, which is arguably the most advanced and complex transportation system the world has ever seen, was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s arse ….. And you thought that being a horse’s arse wasn’t very important! Well! thought you might be interested and Ken Cameron was asking for articles. You can’t win ’em all!!!