Why Horses’ Asses are Very Important

I’m going to cheat. I didn’t write this. I don’t know who did. Mary Skrenes forwarded it to me as an email some months ago.

It may or may not be true, but I have no trouble believing it.

Does the statement, “We’ve always done it that way” ring any bells?

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an odd number, don’t you think? Why was that ‘gauge’ used?

Because that’s the way they built railroads 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. Okay!

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. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot.

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 war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.

Now the twist to the story…

When you 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. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would 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 happens 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, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses’ behinds.

So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s ass.

I’m barely half a day from finishing the script. I’ve been mentally storing up a few rants, and I still owe you on my promise of more information about *Hard Time: Season 2*. I haven’t forgotten.

6 Responses to “Why Horses’ Asses are Very Important”

  1. Lee "budgie" Barnett Says:

    As always with this sort of thing, a visit to Snopes is advised.

    From http://www.snopes.com/history/american/gauge.htm:

    Now, as for that Space Shuttle addendum . . . When Thiokol was building the solid rocket boosters (SRB) for the space shuttle, they had to keep shipping considerations in mind, but they didn’t necessarily have to alter their design because any particular tunnel that lay between their plant and the Florida launch site wasn’t large enough. (The original article implies that one specific railroad tunnel was a cause for concern, but since the location of the tunnel isn’t identified, it’s difficult to evaluate that claim.) In any case, railroads don’t run through tunnels only “slightly wider than the railroad track” unless every one of their engines and all their rolling stock is also only “slightly wider than the railroad track.” (And unless the tunnels encompass only a single set of tracks, of course). Data from the U.S. Army’s Rail Transport in a Theater of Operations document, for example, makes it fairly clear that one would be hard-pressed to find railroad equipment anywhere only “slightly wider” than 4 feet, 8.5 inches.

  2. Alex Krislov Says:

    I hate to be a drag, Steve, but that yarn about the railroad gauges isn’t entirely true. I looked it up because I remember that the lack of a standardized railroad gauge was one of the elements that cost the South bigtime in the Civil War. The Snopes “Urban Legend” site goes into more detail at http://www.snopes.com/history/american/gauge.htm

  3. Alistair Says:

    I love the power of imagination of this person’s thinking(even if not entirely true re gauges). Wonderous!

  4. gordon kent Says:

    Alex — thanks for the link — that was great. There has to be a word to describe trivia that’s piled on top of trivia to correct the original trivia! Gordon

  5. Steve Gerber Says:

    As I said, I didn’t know whether this story was true. It struck me as amusing and possible. If it’s largely bullshit, well — then, that’s what it largely is.

  6. Bart Lidofsky Says:

    One more piece of information. In a biography of Peter Cooper, it was explained how he brought the steam locomotive to the United States (he tried to introduce a rotary steam engine, but, after it was destroyed by vandalism twice, he went to a more conventional engine rather than postpone a demonstration to potential investors a second time). In any case, the biography specifically mentioned that the gauge was based on two factors: the smaller the gauge, the narrower the turning radius, but the slower the train had to move due to stability considerations. Cooper didn’t want to import British locomotives, designed to go around property and mountains, as the United States still had open spaces, and went for faster trains.