STANDARDS – RAILROADS to the Space Shuttle
Was The Standard Railroad Gauge Determined by Roman Chariot Ruts?
Probably not, however, read the following.
Ever wonder where those engineering specifications come from?
Why was that gauge used?
Because that's the way they built them in
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
So who built those old rutted roads?
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
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 army 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 at
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.
A follow up to this story:
Above is the often cited myth authored by unknown, but it seems to be posted all over the web. Taking it a step further, one could argue that the "meta-cause" of the Shuttle Challenger disaster was the indirect result of incremental thinking in design and was set in motion over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's behind.
The actual history of railroad gauges is more interesting and seems to parallel present day standardization issues well.
Denny S. Anspach suggest that if the Roman ruts matched the English wagon ways and early railroads, it was not that George Stephenson (builder of the first public railway) copied the Roman road ruts, people simply responded to the same natural need: the size of the most efficient and stable vehicle that could be pulled by one horse. Matt Wall also debunks this tale referring to engineering needs of the day. The standard gauge was the widest original width you could reliably make an iron axle (pre-bessemerized steel days) that would support the then-weight of locomotives.
However the standards story isn't too far off for once a critical mass is reached, any advances in technology could not change the standard. Economies of scale and standardization helped mass production, and interoperability enabled an actual network as opposed to a conglomeration of vaguely interconnected subsystems. This de-facto standardization created the lock-in.
There is more history on this urban legend in other places. But the interesting part is how it relates to competition and how critical mass is used to the incumbents' advantage.
The economics of networks also applies to standardization on the web. It would seem from the NYT's interview with economist John Steele Gordon titled "To Gauge the Internet, Listen to the Steam Engine", that he would only agree. Check How Microsoft is Building a Global Monopoly, by Nathan Newman, and Making Microsoft Safe for Capitalism by James Gleick.
More follow up to this story:
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Claude Ginsburg)
Subject: Rail Gauge (continued)
.....when Napoleon marched on
Another footnote to the article:
When Napolean invaded