Railroad Tracks

Railroad Tracks

The US standard railroad gauge 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 English expatriates designed the US railroads.

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 had used for building wagons, which used that 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 on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because 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 the ruts in the roads?  Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for frear 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?

*Received by e-mail – reminiscent of those entertaining e-mail messages that spread like wildfire when people first started using e-mail – Original source unknown

**This story is FALSE – Sorry everyone: the website Snopes has investigated and although there is some *partial truth* and it makes for a good story, it isn’t factually accurate.
Link:  http://www.snopes.com/history/american/gauge.asp


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Categorized as History Tagged

By Mateo de Colón

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! (^.^)/


  1. Along these same lines history is also to blame as to why Americans drive on the right side of the road and Europeans on the left. This is what I've heard.

    The reason has to do with the majority of the population being right handed. As Europe has very old civilizations I've heard that it was due to medieval times and passers-by being able to draw their swords in order to defend or attack. As most are right handed, you draw your sword and then it is on the same side as the passer-by. Therefore, better to "drive" on the left and keep others on your right side.

    In America, the days of wielding swords were over they did not copy this tradition. Instead, since most people traveled by wagon it was better to travel (drive) on the right side. Again, most people are right handed and used the whip with the right hand. In order to not hit any passers-by when swinging the whip it was best to drive on the right and keep others on the left.

    If anyone knows anything different please add! I'm curious.

  2. Hello globalcitizen,

    thank you for the great article. It’s really informative and quite entertaining.


    Sorry to deceive you, but only Great Britains citizens drive on the leftern side of the Road.
    It is really funny what conceptions many Americans have about other countries. Once i heard i guy that thought the Autobahn in Germany was just one road… no it is not, it is a type of road, similar to a highway in America, and most parts of it have a speed limit btw. Anyway… please dear USamericans, get your education right.

    Best regards,


  3. Touché Felix!

    You are correct and I do feel silly as I’ve lived in Europe. I meant to say Britain!! >_< But as for us USamericans, yes sometimes we do not know much about the rest of the world. But we invented the car, the airplane, the computer, the radio, light bulbs and have had to save the Europeans numerous times from destroying themselves. Perhaps if other countries would invent or do something useful then we might learn more about other countries. ROFLAA;SLDKFJASDAS

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