Friday, February 05, 2010

Why Did They Do It THAT Way?

It is now 4:50 AM in Northern Virginia. Our latest winter storm is supposed to start at about 10:00 AM, end sometime tomorrow evening, and leave us with 18-24 inches of snow. Agnes's flight to Germany, scheduled for 7:15 this evening, was already canceled last evening. The Federal government is "Open, with an unscheduled leave policy, and employees should be dismissed by their agencies four hours early."

Yep, we're gonna get hammered.

And I'm tired of writing about it. It's gonna be what it's gonna be. Let's talk about something else. How about railroad gauges?

My late uncle Frank was, for many years, the editor of Trains Magazine, and so I grew up immersed in railroad history and lore. But one thing I never thought to ask was why rails are spaced the way they are...why are the standard rails spaced exactly 4 feet, 8.5 inches apart?

I ran across this explanation many years ago, and it seems just as good as any:

The US Standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches because that's the way railroads were built in England, and the first US railroads were built by English expatriates.

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 they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Okay! Why did the wagons use that odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagons would break on some of the old, long distance roads, because that was 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 to enable their legions to move swiftly from place to place. Those roads have been used ever since. And the ruts? The initial ruts, which everyone since has had to match for fear of destroying their wagons, were first made by Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made for the Imperial Roman legions, they were made with standardized wheel spacing as specified by the Roman Army...which, in turn, drove the specifications for the width of the roads - wide enough to accommodate two war chariots passing in opposite directions. Voila! The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original military specification ("MilSpec," in modern military acquisition terminology) for an Imperial Roman army war chariot.

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.

Think about it ... after all these centuries, decisions in government are still being made by horses' asses.

Explains a lot, doesn't it?

Have a good day. Stay warm. Drink hot chocolate, wrap yourself up in quilts, hunker down in front of the fireplace, and read or watch your way through your DVD collection.

The above advice does not apply in Australia. Sorry, Amanda.

More thoughts tomorrow, assuming we've been able to dig out.



Leslie David said...

I actually got to walk some of the old Roman roads last fall. Guess I'll get ready to leave and go in early.

Bandit said...

Very good history lesson and analogy at the end.

By the way, I hate to rub it in, but we were supposed to get snow last night here in STL. The cold air did not arrive and all we had was rain.

Mike said...

No need to be stuck in a rut anymore.

Wv: urbac - going back to the city.

John said...

I had heard long ago that the rails were based on the width of the Roman chariots, but never had the step by step from the "horses asses" to the modern day application. Thanks.

wv: opprous--a word, phrase or practice that has been endorsed by the Queen of daytime television.