And we can't find Mars because ... ?
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
Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel
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
The roads have been used ever since. And the ruts? Roman war chariots
first made the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of
destroying their wagon wheels and wagons. 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, 8.5 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 which horse's rear came up with it, you may be
Because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to
accommodate the back Ends of two war-horses.
And now, the twist to the story...
There's an interesting extension to the story about railroad gauges and
horses' behinds. 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. Thiokol makes the SRBs at
their factory at 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 by the width of a Horse's [rear]!
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