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A Military Spec Never Dies It Just Goes On and On and ...

Check out our factual addendum to this piece, click here.

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 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?

The first long distance roads in Europe (and England) were built by Imperial Rome for their 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 wheelspacing.

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 and wonder what horse's ass came up with it, you maybe exactly right, because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses. Thus, we have the answer to the original question.

Now the extraterrestrial twist to the story...

When we 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 by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs might 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 had 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 is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So, the major 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 wonder why it's so hard, to get ahead in this world...

Factual Addendum

OK, it's funny but how factual is this piece?

Although this piece has seem fairly wide circulation, and is generally accepted as authentic, in fact it's bogus.

The Romans never used chariots for war, only for ceremonies and racing (Remember Ben-Hur?).

In addition, wheel gauges on wagons varied considerably back in the "good old days" when we used them more extensively than we do today.

And as for railroad track gauge, well there were literally scores of different gauges, ranging from about two feet to about seven, during the nineteenth century. The U.S. went over to its "standard" 4-feet, 8.5-inches because that was the gauge used by the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central, which, as a result of "robber baron" business practices in the late nineteenth century ended up controlling most railroading in America. Even then, some narrower gauge lines persisted into the mid-twentieth century, and still persist overseas.

Of course while the details in the piece are inaccurate, the sentiments are not necessariliy invalid. In the U.S. Army, a pre-Civil War mandate that all recruits had to have at least two opposing natural teeth (so they could bite their cartridges) was not repealled until 1944.

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