Saturday, April 12, 2008


Jamie, a friend and coworker, always sends me the most interesting emails. Here's an
abbreviated version of the latest one:

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the 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.

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?

Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and 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
alike in the matter of wheel spacing. Therefore the United States standard railroad gaugeof 4
feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot.
Bureaucracies live forever.

So the next time you are handed a Specification/Procedure/Process and wonder 'What horse's
ass came up with it?' you may be exactly right. Imperial Roman army chariots were made just
wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses. (Two horses' asses.)


Bobby said...

Paul, another coworker, emailed me this link:

Which debunks this whole railroad track myth.

Anonymous said...

I liked the horse rear end theory better than Pauls historical research.