The US standard railroad gauge (width between the two
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 U.S. 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? The first long
distance roads in Europe and England were built by Imperial Rome for her
legions. The roads have been used ever since.
And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots first formed the initial
ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon
wheels. Since the chariots were made for (or by) Imperial Rome, they were
all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. The United States standard
railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original
specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot. Specifications and
bureaucracies live forever!
So the next time you are handed a specification that makes you wonder what
horse's ass came up with it, you might be exactly right, because the
Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the
asses of two war horses. Thus, we have the answer to the original
Now the extraterrestrial twist to the story. When you see a Space Shuttle
sitting on it's 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 SRB's might have preferred to make them a
bit fatter, but the SRB's had to be shipped by train from the factory to
the launch site. The railroad line from the factory had to run through a
tunnel in the mountains. The SRB's had to fit through that tunnel. The
tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track
is about as wide a two horses' asses.
So, a major 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 ass.
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