Old Wives' Tales
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Claim: The United States standard railroad gauge derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2000]
Origins: This is one of those items that — although wrong in many of its details — isn't exactly false in an overall sense and is perhaps more fairly labeled as "True, but for trivial and unremarkable reasons." Marveling that the width of modern roadways is similar to the width of ancient roadways is sort of like getting excited over a notion such as "modern clothes sizes are based upon standards developed by medieval tailors." Well, duh. Despite obvious differences in style, clothing in the Middle Ages served the same purpose as clothing today (i.e., to cover, protect, and ornament the human body), and modern human beings are very close in size to medieval human beings (we are, on average, a little bit taller and heavier than we were several centuries ago, but not much), so we naturally expect ancient and modern clothing to be similar in
So, rather than going into excruciating detail about the history of transportation, we'll simply note that roads are built (or worn) to accommodate whatever uses them, and that for many centuries prior to the advent of railroads, what traveled on roads were mostly wheeled conveyances, pulled by beasts of burden (primarily horses), carrying passengers and goods. Physical conditions dictated some of the dimensions of those conveyances (such as the width of their axles) and largely ensured that they would fall within a fairly narrow range of variation: Horse-drawn vehicles, whether they were chariots or carts or carriages, all served similar functions, so practical considerations (e.g., the speed at which horses could travel, the amount of weight horses could pull, the number and arrangement of horses that could be controlled by a single driver) required that they be relatively similar in size as well.
That may suffice as an explanation covering the specific combination of horse-drawn vehicles and roads, but what about vehicles that traveled on rails instead of roads (such as trolleys), or that weren't pulled by horses (such as trains)? Why should they be similar in size to their predecessors?
Although we humans can be remarkably inventive, we are also often resistant to change and can be persistently stubborn (or perhaps practical) in trying to apply old solutions to new conditions. When confronted with a new idea such as a "rail," why go to the expense and effort of designing a new vehicle for it rather than simply adapting ones already in abundant use on roadways? If someone comes along with an invention known as an "iron horse," wouldn't it make sense to put the same type of conveyance pulled by "regular" horses behind it? That is indeed exactly what was tried in the early days of American railroads, as captured in the following illustration:
(The caption reads: "This locomotive in New York State, like its other early counterparts, pulled passenger cars based on old-fashioned carriages. The technology evolved quickly in the 1840s, however, and the United States played an important role in that evolution.")
Similar thinking occurred in Britain. Historian James Crow, writing about Housesteads, the
The wheel rut and gate stop in the north passage are well preserved, and a number of reused stone blocks formed part of the latest surface to survive. The gauge between the ruts is very similar to that adopted by George Stephenson for the Stockton to Darlington railway in 1837, and a 'Wall myth' developed that he took this gauge from the newly excavated east gate. There is a common link, but it is more prosaic, and the 'coincidence' is explained by the fact that the dimension common to both was that of a cart axle pulled by two horses in harness (about 1.4m orIt is rather inaccurate to claim that "US railroads were built by English expatriates," but it is fair to say that since the English started to develop railroads slightly ahead of the Americans, some U.S. railroads used equipment purchased from English manufacturers, thus necessitating that the rails on which that equipment ran be the same size in both countries:
England, the innovator in railroad technology, enjoyed an early head start over America. WhenAnd once the Americans caught up, they began selling railroad technology back to England, further establishing a similarity of equipment (and hence track size) between the two countries:
American companies emulated and improved upon the English designs. By 1841, ten American railroad shops had sprung into existence and they produced 375 of theNonetheless, despite this commonality of equipment, well into the 19th century the U.S. still did not have one "standard" railroad gauge. At the time of the Civil War, even though nearly all of the Confederacy's railroad equipment had come from the North or from Britain (of the
The Confederate government was never able to coax the fragmented, run-down, multi-gauged network of southern railroads into the same degree of efficiency exhibited by northern roads. This contrast illustrated another dimension of Union logistical superiority that helped the North eventually to prevail.3The eventual standardization of railroad gauge in the U.S. was due far less to a slavish devotion to a gauge inherited from England than to the simple fact that the North won the Civil War and, in the process, rebuilt much of the Southern railway system to match its own:
[I]n the occupied South the government went into the railroad business on a large scale. In February 1862 [Secretary of War] Stanton established the U.S. Military Rail Roads and appointed Daniel McCallum superintendent. A former Erie Railroad executive and an efficient administrator, McCallum eventually presided over more than 2,000 miles of lines acquired, built, and maintained by the U.S.M.R.R. in conquered portions of the South.3In other words, there was nothing inevitable about a railroad gauge supposedly traceable to the size of wheel ruts in Imperial Rome. Had the Civil War taken a different course, the eventual standard railroad gauge used throughout North America might well have been different than the current one.
Now, as for that Space Shuttle addendum . . . When Thiokol was building the solid rocket boosters (SRB) for the space shuttle, they had to keep shipping considerations in mind, but they didn't necessarily have to alter their design because any particular tunnel that lay between their plant and the Florida launch site wasn't large enough. (The original article implies that one specific railroad tunnel was a cause for concern, but since the location of the tunnel isn't identified, it's difficult to evaluate that claim.) In any case, railroads don't run through tunnels only "slightly wider than the railroad track" unless every one of their engines and all their rolling stock is also only "slightly wider than the railroad track." (And unless the tunnels encompass only a single set of tracks, of course). Data from the U.S. Army's Rail Transport in a Theater of Operations document, for example, makes it fairly clear that one would be hard-pressed to find railroad equipment anywhere only "slightly wider" than
Over and above our love of odd facts, this tale about railroad gauges succeeds because of the imagery of its play on words: space shuttle technology was designed not by a horse's ass (figuratively, some overpaid government know-it-all) but because of a horse's ass (literally, the width of that particular portion of equine anatomy). People find this notion amusing, feeding the story's popularity as charmed readers to pass it along to others in a cascade of forwards. Were it not for this internal play on words, this entire breathless "Did you know?
"Very interesting, educational, historical, completely true, and hysterical"? One out of five, maybe.
Last updated: 27 March 2009
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