Internet UL Garbage or True? Railroad Gauge.

This is the latest in a never ending stream of BS that friends e-mail me. Although, it is one of the more interesting ones I have seen, I wonder (unlike the majority of them where I know its BS) whether this one has a grain of truth to it.

Anyways, here it is: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 England, and the US railroads were built by English expatriates.

Why did the English people 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 use that odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagons would break on some of the old, long distance roads, because that’s the spacing of the old wheel ruts.

So who built these old rutted roads? The first long distance roads in Europe were built by Imperial Rome for the benefit of their legions. The roads have been used ever since. And the ruts? The initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagons, were first made by Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made for or by Imperial Rome they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

Thus, we have the answer to the original questions. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derived from the original specification for an Imperial Roman army war chariot.

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

Why do YOU do the things you do?

There’s an interesting extension of the story about railroad gauge and horses’ behinds.

When you see the Space Shuttle sitting on the launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank.
These are the solid rocket boosters, or SRBs.
The SRBs are made by Thiokol at a factory in Utah.
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 line to 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 is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined by the width of a horse’s backside.
“Insert witty saying here.”

So, if this is all true, the moral is… the moral is…

Oh heck, what’s the moral? There’s history? The US will never go metric? The size of Kermit’s eyes are determined by the thumb-length of 12th century Kurdish traders? Life is a series of unending, senseless hardships that we cause ourselves validating Camus’ existential and nihilistic premise that hell is other people?

The real moral is good friends don’t forward b.s. emails to good friends.


The solid rocket boosters used on the space shuttle are only 12 feet in diameter. They didn’t have any trouble finding a railroad tunnel they would fit through.

The suggestion the engineers who designed them “might have wanted to make them a bit fatter” but couldn’t because of a railroad tunnel is ludicrous.

The whole story is ludicrous.

It’s a load of hooey. Take a look at:

Not really. The US was exporting engines early in the 1800s. If you look at the number of patents issued for railroad technology they are fairly evenly divided between US and British inventors. Railroad gauges were not standardized in Britain until the 1850’s. The Great Western Railway used a gauge around 7 feet. The US did not standardize their railroad gauge until after the Civil War.

Nope, jigs were used to build the wheels, not the axels that determined the wheel spacing.

Actually, the railroad gauge must be measured very precisely and ruts are hardly very preceise. In addition, railroad tracks could not be laid in ruts but on a prepared railroad bed.

The Roman army did not use chariots, nor would they have felt any need to standardize their chariot wheel size. The chariot was obsolete weaponry since the Assyrians figured out you could have two warriors fighting on horseback instead of one chariot.

True enough. But in this case it has more to do with competition between railroad companies in mid 1800’s.

Andrew Warinner

…and that story had to have precisely as many holes as a block of Swiss cheese because the story and cheese have the same odiferous properties.