Are U.S. Railroad Gauges Based on Roman Chariots?
The 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.
- David Mikkelson
- Published 16 April 2001
The U.S. standard railroad gauge derives directly from the width of Imperial Roman war chariots.
Mixture About this rating What’s True
The standard U.S. railroad gauge is similar in width to the wheel spacing of Roman chariots. What’s False
That similarity is based much more on coincidence and inherent physical limitations than a direct line of imitation.
Nonetheless, claims about a direct line descent between ancient Roman chariot tracks and the standard U.S. railway gauge jump the tracks when confronted with the fact that despite some 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 470 locomotives built in the U.S. in 1860, for example, only 19 were manufactured in the South), 113 different railroad companies in the Confederacy operated on three different gauges of track.
As for the Space Shuttle addendum to this piece, 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 have to alter their design because any particular tunnel that lay between their plant and the Florida launch site wasn’t large enough.
Railroads don’t run through tunnels only “slightly wider than the railroad track” unless every one of their engines and all their rolling stock are also only “slightly wider than the railroad track,” and unless all tunnels encompass only a single set of tracks. 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 4 feet, 8.5 inches.
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 continue to pass it along to others in a cascade of forwards.
“Very interesting, educational, historical, completely true, and hysterical”? One out of five, maybe.
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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?
Well, because that’s the way they built them in England, and English engineers designed the first US railroads.
Why did the English build them like that?
Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the wagon tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.
So, why did ‘they’ use 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 same 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 more often on some of the old, long distance roads in England . You see, 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 England ) for their legions. Those roads have been used ever since.
And what about the ruts in the roads?
Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match or run the risk 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/procedure/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. (Two horses’ asses.)
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.
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. And you thought being a horse’s ass wasn’t important? Ancient horse’s asses control almost everything……