Horses’ arses

Anyone ever really stopped and wondered about railroad tracks? They’re very interesting things.

The standard railroad gauge (the distance between the two tracks) in the USA is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. A somewhat arbitrary number, if you stop and think about it.

Why was that number used?

The answer is simple: because that’s the way railroads were built in England, and it was English colonialists that pioneered the American railways.

But the same question can be asked of the English: why did they build their railroads like that?

The answer to that is because the same people that built the English railroads also built the pre-railway tramlines, and that’s the gauge that was used for them.

But why did the tramlines use that gauge?

Because the people who built the tramlines used the same jigs and tools which were used for building carriages and wagons, and that was the wheel spacing which they used.

So why did the wagons use that particular wheel spacing? Simply because the wheels would break on some of the old long-distance roads in England due to the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built the rutted roads? The legions of Imperial Rome built the first long-distance roads across Europe (including England). Those roads have been used ever since. Roman chariots formed the initial wheel ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wheels.

Since the chariots were all made for Imperial Rome, the specifications of each one was the same, and they were all alike in terms of wheel spacing. Therefore, the United States railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications of an Imperial Roman war chariot.

In other words, bureaucracies live forever.

So the next time you’re handed a specification, process or procedure and wonder to yourself: “What horse’s arse came up with this?” you may be exactly right – Imperial Roman chariots were made just wide enough for them to be pulled by two horses.

Now a little twist for the story…

When you look at photographs of the space shuttle sitting on its launch pad, you’ll notice that to either side of the main fuel tank there are two large booster rockets. These are solid rocket boosters – or SRBs – and they’re made by a company called Thiokol at their factory in Utah.

The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit larger, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains, so the SRBs had to be able to fit through this tunnel. The tunnel is slightly larger than the railroad track, which as you know is about as wide as two horses’ rear-ends.

So a major design constraint on one of the most advanced forms of transportation ever built – the space shuttle – was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s arse. And you all thought being a horse’s arse wasn’t important!

Now you know horses’ arses control almost everything. Explains a lot, really…

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