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Engineering history lesson

It's not very often that we ask why things are the way
they are but here's an answer for you, The US standard railroad gauge
(distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That is an
exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way
they built them in England, and the US railroads were built by English
expatriates. Why did the English build them that way? 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?

Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools
that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing. So
why did the wagons have that particular odd 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 was the spacing of 
the wheel ruts. So who built those old rutted roads? The first long 
distance roads in England were built by Imperial Rome for their legions. 
The roads have been used ever since. And the ruts in the roads? The ruts 
in the roads, which everyone had to match for fear of destroying their
wagon wheels, were first formed by Roman war chariots. Since the chariots 
were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter
of wheel spacing. The US standard railroad gauge of 4 feet-8.5 inches
derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war
chariot. Specifications and bureaucracies live forever. So the next time
you are handed a specification and wonder what horse's arse came up
with it, you may be exactly right, because the Imperial Roman war chariots
were made just wide enough to accommodate the back end of two war
horses. Thus we have the answer to the original question. Now for the
twist to the story. When we see a space shuttle sitting on it's
launching pad, there are two booster rockets attached to the side of the
main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRB's. The SRB's are
made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the
SRB's might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRB's had
to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad
line from the factory had to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The
tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track
is about as wide as two horses' rumps. So, a major design feature of
what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system has
determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's arse!
Don't you just love engineering?




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