Date: Fri, 3 Sep 1999 11:47:15 -0400 (EDT)
From: Bee Beegee
Subject: BLAGUES-L: Railroad Gauges
[ An excellent read, in my humble opinion! (But then again, I absolutely
adore useless facts, they make great cocktail party conversations!) (/jg)
Date: Sat, 21 Aug 1999 03:58:19 -0400
Subject: Read for the edification of you and posterity.
This helps to explain a lot of things, and, in the process, may dispel
some incorrect notions about civilization:
Thought you might enjoy these facts.
The US Standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8
1/2 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used?
Because that's the way they built them in England, and the US railroads
were built by English expatriates. Why did the English build them like
Because the first railway 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 in England, 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 their wagons use that odd wheel spacing?
Because, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagon wheels would
break on some of the old, long distance roads.
Because that's the spacing of the old wheel ruts. So who built these old
rutted roads? The first long distance roads in Europe were built by
Imperial Rome for the benefit of their legions. The Roman roads have been
used ever since. And the ruts? The original ruts, which everyone else had
to match for fear of destroying their wagons, were first made by the
wheels of Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made for or by
Imperial Rome they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.
Thus, we have the answer to the original question. The United States
standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches derives from the original
specification for an Imperial Roman army 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 may be exactly right. Because the Imperial Roman chariots
were made to be just wide enough to accommodate the back-ends of two war-horses.
Plus, there's an interesting extension of the story about railroad gauge
and horses' behinds. When we see a Space Shuttle sitting on the launch
pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main
fuel tank. These are the solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made
by Thiokol at a 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 from the
factory runs through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit
through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than a railroad track,
and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses' behinds. So a major
design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced
transportation system was originally determined by the width of a horse's
A response from the following day:
[ Good morning everyone. One BLAGUES-L reader sent me this, regarding
Friday's mail about "Railway Gauges" (/jg) ]
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 06 Sep 1999 21:19:13 -0500
From: Dr. David N. Wigtil
C'est sans doute un good read, mais c'est été aussi preuvé qu'il est un
hoax. [It is undoubtedly a good read, but it has also been proven to be a
hoax. (translation: Jocelyn Gagnon)] I have passed it by my classically
oriented friends (was an ancient Greek professor myself for 10 years) and
also read a couple of disproofs.
The bottom line is this: before Eli Whitney and his assembly line, no
machine was ever manufactured to any standard. Hence there couldn't have
been any standard Roman war chariot. Quod erat demonstrandum (QED).
But a good read, all the same!!! Tibi multas gratias ago.
And a response to the response:
[ For your information (sorry to post more than one e-mail today, this is
surely unusual) (/jg) ]
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 7 Sep 1999 15:02:35 +0100
From: Brian Cooper
On the contrary! It is entirely true about Roman roads having their
intervals at that distance, hence the development of railroads in Britain
taking the same standard - unless all my history teachers (at school in
England) were taken for a ride!
As for the carts being manufactured to the same standard, we were
certainly taught that they all had the same distance between the wheels so
they could ride the stones on the roads, and that the first railways in
the eighteenth century were merely a replacement of the stones with metal
plates with flanges (or guides) to keep the wheels in place. Then the
flanges were moved from the metal rails to the wheels, hence the evolution
of the modern railway (or railroad).
Whether it was a pragmatic move by cart makers from Roman times forward,
or whether it was a set standard, the principal is surely still the same.