The Space Shuttle and the Horse’s Rear End
Did you know the US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8 1/2 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 railroads.
Sure, but why did the English build them like that?
They built them like that because the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways built the first railway lines. And that’s the gauge they used.
Well, why did they use that gauge in England?
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 their wagons use that odd wheel spacing?
Because, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads.
And they did it because that’s the spacing of the old wheel ruts.
So who built these old rutted roads?
Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe for the benefit of their legions.
Still today, the world uses the Roman roads. Talk about quality.
And the ruts?
The original ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagons, were first made by the wheels of Roman war chariots.
Since the chariots were made for or by Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.
Ok, so Why Is the US Standard Railroad Gauge What It Is?
Because it derives from the original specification 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.
The Imperial Roman chariots were made to be just wide enough to accommodate the back-ends of two war horses.
What Does This Have to Do With the Exploration of Space?
Well, there’s an interesting extension of the story about railroad gauge and horses’ behinds. When we saw a Space Shuttle sitting on the launch pad, there were two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank.
These are the solid rocket boosters or SRBs. Thiokol, a factory in Utah, made the SRBs.
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 from the factory runs through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than a railroad track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses’ behinds.
So a major design feature of what was arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was originally determined by the width of a horse’s ass.
And the motto of the story is specifications and bureaucracies live forever.
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