Lets try not to get stuck in a rut…

A fascinating look back at making tracks!

This came in from Suzann, Su to her friends, a few days ago.  Suzann is Dan Gomez’s sister and if Dan’s name is familiar it’s because he, too, sends in items for Learning from Dogs, the recent Tad too much cabin pressure being an example.  It was Su that invited me out to San Carlos, Mexico for Christmas 2007 which resulted in me meeting Jean, a long-time friend of Su, and, as they say, the rest is history!  OK, to the article from Su.


Here’s a question?

Think about railroad (railways in ‘English’!) tracks.  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 Scotland, and Scots expatriates designed the US railroads.

Why did the Scots 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 that gauge then?  Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they had used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

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 Scotland, 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 (including Scotland) for their legions.  Those roads have been used ever since. [And rarely repaired! 😉 Ed. ]

And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts.  Which forever more 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.  Therefore the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot.

Bureaucracies live forever….

So the next time you are handed a specification or a procedure or process and wonder ‘What horse’s ass came up with this?‘, you may be exactly right.  Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear 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, and 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.


Just a fabulously interesting account of something we all take for granted, or had done until now! Thank you so much, Su, for sharing that with everyone.

16 thoughts on “Lets try not to get stuck in a rut…

  1. Great info! Thanks.

    So it is not only that all roads lead to Rome but also that Rome leads to all roads, or at least to all railroad tracks… I wonder if our King of the Road was conscious of that when he jumped on his third box car midnight train, destination Bangor, Maine smoking the old stogie he had found? He might have felt slightly more humble then!

    But this also leads me to another question. Has anyone heard about any metric faux pas, type Mars Orbiter, resulting from measuring two horse asses width without specifying what horses? Is the width of the horses´ asses the same everywhere? I mean sort of thinking about heavy horses like “The Suffolk, the Clydesdale, the Percheron vie” Would they all fit, two of them, side by side, in Scottish tunnels, perhaps pulling a damaged locomotive?


    1. Hi Per. I am very glad you found Su’s account as informative and (presumably) amusing as I did. Sadly, I am unable to offer any further insight at this time (as they say in the good ol’ US of A). 🙂

      We clearly cannot change the length of an Earth day (23h 56m 4s) or of an Earth Year (365.24 days), which leads to quite a bit of fiddling with clocks (even atomic ones) but, how on earth did we get stuck with 60 seconds in a minutes and 60 minutes in a hour?


      1. Re: Crashing probes to Mars: that’s not about different horses, it’s about trying to measure the width of different backsides without remembering what units you’re using.


        Much the same thing happens every time some numbskull tries to talk about temperature in relation to climate change (or simple weather around the globe for that matter) without specifying whether the numbers they are using are degrees Fahrenheit (familiar within the US) or Celsius/ Centigrade (familiar to almost everyone else on the planet — arguable, the ones not stuck in the rut, in this case…).

        Re: seconds in a minute and minutes in an hour: I think (but don’t know) that the number 60 might have been arrived at as a good one because it’s divisible by many numbers with no remainder, which is useful for chopping things into bits.

        The factors of sixty (the numbers by which it is exactly divisible) are:
        1,2,3,4,5,6,10,12,15,20,30 and, of course, 60. That’s a lotta factors.



      2. Martin you ask “but, how on earth did we get stuck with 60 seconds in a minutes and 60 minutes in an hour?”

        The normal way, you start with some very basic and good ingredients, and bake 99.9% of your cake… And then comes the finisher and makes some final tweaking and puts some final touches on it… and sometimes even feels his genius deserves to be given a patent on the whole. Strange no one has been awarded a patent for leap Years… We might need leap hours and leap minutes too… just in case let me hurry to the patent office.


      3. Despite my genuine gratitude to the French for giving the World all things metric, I think they have over-egged the pudding (to continue with the baking metaphor) in suggesting that time itself should be decimalized (i.e. 100 seconds in a minute, 100 minutes in an hour, and 20(?) hours in a day). Given that we cannot change the length of a day, we would have to change the length of a second. However, apart from all the other chaos this would cause, we would also have to find a new way to drive atomic clocks as well…


      4. The late, great, Dr Isaac Asimov had some fascinating thought experiments abour calendar revision. If this subject is of interest to you I strongly recommend checking out the book ‘The Tragedy of the Moon‘*.

        * This book also touches on possible reasons why intelligent — sic — life arose on our planet, though I think he doesn’t go far enough, especially when considering the apparent ‘coincidence’ of solar and lunar eclipses. I keep meaning to blog about that, but never seem to get a round tuit; and there are always more important fish to fry these days. Until, of course, there are no fish left


  2. Base 60 was useful for the tremendous astronomical computations in Mesopotamia to determine the seasons, planting, and the floods of the great rivers. At least a millennium before Rome.

    BTW, I mention Rome all the time, because there is an astounding prolongation of systems of thought throughout the ages. actually, for about 10,000 years, civilization has proven to be be a continual construction, an initial condition onto itself (in the differential equation sense).


    1. Thanks Patrice. No problem with your mentioning Rome – Su started it! However, if you go back more than 7k years (when humans began to alter their environment through agriculture and deforestation) – I think you are into fairly uncivilised Ice Age territory.


  3. Martin: I was alluding to my last ten years of Internet presence about Rome. Other point: civilization is more than 10,000 years old. Oldest cities in Anatolia are that old. The glaciation was over in most places by then, although much of the world was still wet (including the Sahara)..


    1. Martin is like one of these adjuvants, you know, these irritating substances they add to vaccine, to make the organism more strongly react. I notice he has been staying cautiously away from my sophisticated site, lest I out split the hair he already split…


      1. Thanks for those kind words, Patrice. Can your ego allow us to both be right, or must you always win an argument? The Earth began to warm-up 13k years ago. Therefore, although most parts of it were free of ice by 10k years ago, sea levels and climate did not stabilise until 7k years ago. I will accept that some cities (more like bee hives) may have existed prior to 7k years ago. However, the growing of crops on the most fertile soils, building cities and large boats and trading with neighbours, metallurgy, and modern civilisation – all these things became much easier once the coastlines stopped moving around.


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