Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Two Stories About Tracks

Many years ago, shortly after the earth's crust cooled and the dinosaurs died out, I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the US Air Force. Now, for those of you who may not be familiar with military ranks and customs, I will just tell you that no one gets any less respect than a Second Lieutenant. You're expected to be young and stupid, to keep your mouth shut and learn to be - as crusty old Sergeant Bowmar, who was responsible for me, once said - a real officer. Two long years went by and I was promoted to First Lieutenant ... and crusty old Sergeant Bowmar told me that I was almost there - when I finally made Captain and got my "tracks" (the slang for a captain's insignia) ...

... I'd be a real officer. Fast-forward two more years, and Captain Bilbo strode proudly into the office, whereupon old Sergeant Bowmar closely examined the new insignia glittering on my collar and grunted, "Humph! Narrow gauge!"

And, speaking of tracks, here is a little bit of history that I'd heard before, but of which I was reminded by my old co-worker Dave in a blog fodder e-mail he sent me yesterday ...

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. This is a bit of an odd measurement ... why was that particular gauge used? Because that's the way railroads were built in England, and English expatriates designed 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 they had used for building wagons, which used a wheel spacing of 4 feet, 8.5 inches.

So, why did the wagons have that odd wheel spacing? Because if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels and axles would risk breaking on some of the old, long distance roads in England, on which the wheel ruts were 4 feet, 8.5 inches apart.

So, who built those old rutted roads?

Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (including England) so that they could move their legions quickly from place to place. Those roads were so expertly designed and laid out that they have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads? The original ruts were formed by the wheels of Roman war chariots, which were designed to imperial military specifications. Because a Roman war chariot was drawn by two war horses, the roads were built to accommodate the passage of a war chariot drawn by two horses.

Yes, Dear Readers, the Roman military roads - on which the gauge of today's railroads were ultimately based - were laid out to accommodate the original design specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot ... which, in turn, were based on the size of horses' asses.

Bureaucracies live forever.

So, the next time you are handed a specification/procedure/process and wonder, 'What horse's ass came up with this?' you may be exactly right ... because Imperial Roman army chariots, and their supporting roads, were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses.

Now, the twist to the story:

When you saw a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, you probably noticed that a huge booster rocket was attached to each side of the main fuel tank. These were the solid rocket boosters, or SRBs, manufactured by the Thiokol Corporation at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit larger, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory ran through tunnels, and the SRBs had to fit through those tunnels. The tunnels were slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So ...

A major design feature of the world's most advanced transportation system was determined
over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's ass.

And you thought being a horse's ass wasn't important?

Little did you know!

And that's today's little bit of history for you, courtesy of your ol' Uncle Bilbo.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



eViL pOp TaRt said...

Bilbo, your post today was an eclectic delight; a discourse from slang for military ranks to railroads to horses' asses! Well, you should learn something new each day, and this accomplished that!

Mike said...

So.... wait.... let's go back to the beginning and try ythis again.

John said...

I've know about the rail width, not about the rockets. Interesting.

John said...


Big Sky Heidi said...

In Russia they use a 4' 11" gauge railing to not be compatible with the Germans'. Therefore, German rolling stock cannot be used there.

allenwoodhaven said...

Perhaps that's why so many people seem to want to be a horse's ass; they want to achieve a similar immortality!

Bilbo said...

Angelique - thank you!!

Mike - Go ahead...I'll wait.

John - nice catch.

Heidi - you are correct...the Russians purposely used a different gauge of track so that it would complicate things for invaders. Not all that many people know that - I'm impressed!

Allen - I never thought of it that way, but you may well be on to something!