Internet Myth

Discussion in 'Getting Started' started by Pitchwife, May 9, 2006.

  1. Pitchwife

    Pitchwife Dreamer

    I got the following in an email recently. I've seen it before, and got to wondering if it has any basis in fact or is it just another internet myth:

    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

    Because that's the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built 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 used for building wagons, which used that wheel

    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 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 (and England) for their legions who occupied England for the first 300 years.
    The 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 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 United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war
    chariot. 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 army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses - which Frebrezian horses
    of those centuries - sort of built like our Budwieser horses and wagon. Course that is not a chariot.

    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 Morton 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. 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!
  2. BrianK

    BrianK Member

    True or not, that was an interesting read :p

    Good stuff.
  3. TrainNut

    TrainNut Ditat Deus

    I sure hope it's true as I have shared that story with quite a few people. If it's not... hmm, I guess that makes me the horse's ass!! :D :D You know what they say when you just "assume" something is true...
  4. RailRon

    RailRon Active Member

    sign1 :D:D:D:D:D:D:D:D sign1

    I knew the story as far as the Roman chariots - but the zoological extension to Roman horse asses was new to me! Hilarious (but perhaps even true)!!!

  5. Dave Flinn

    Dave Flinn Member

    I've seen and heard this story many times. It is a good one, and probably as logical an explanation of the width of standard gauge tracks as any. However, I don't think we'll ever be able to verify the authenticity.
  6. Doc Holliday

    Doc Holliday Member

  7. Pitchwife

    Pitchwife Dreamer

    At last, the real story! :D :D I knew that if it could be found, someone here at the Gauge would find it. Well done Doc. :thumb: :thumb:
  8. Chessie6459

    Chessie6459 Gauge Oldtimer

    Well that sure say's it all right there.
  9. SteamerFan

    SteamerFan Member

    Dunno, I still think the Roman Chariot story is more accurate, the other seems to far fetched :D .

    And in reality, the first rail car was a modified wagon to run on rails, and the kept it's original wheel width. just do some research on horse drawn rail cars and you'll find that the second story here just doesn't make sense, and the roman one makes more sense.
  10. MasonJar

    MasonJar It's not rocket surgery

    The claim that two "war" horses can fit side by side within 4' 8 1/2" should be enough to cast doubt on the Roman chariot theory. Have you evere seen how big those horses are? There is no way that two of them would fit... one maybe, but not two.

  11. Russ Bellinis

    Russ Bellinis Active Member

    I think the second story is probably more accurate. 4' 8 1/2" did not become standard gauge until years after the railroads were developed in England, and it didn't become standard gauge in North America until Lincoln made it the standard gauge by presidential decree during the civil war. Both sdes of the war needed the railroads to transport supplies during the civil war. I think the southern railroads were pretty much standard at 5' gauge, but in the North, the railroads with one exception were running the 4'81/2" gauge. The one exception was the Pennsy ( source of their slogan "the broad way"), they were running a 5' gauge. That meant that cars could not be interchanged between the Pennsy and any other railroad in the North. Lincoln ordered the railroads to standardise the gauge at 4'81/2" during the war to enable the military to interchange traffic, and it was easier to have the Pennsy change gauge than to have every body else change.
  12. Pitchwife

    Pitchwife Dreamer

    I may be wrong, but it seems like I read somewhere that during the Civil War the north and south purposely used different gauges to prevent captured rail lines from being used by the other side.
  13. Russ Bellinis

    Russ Bellinis Active Member

    I think it is more a case of the North having trains running on 4'81/2" gauge while the South had most railroads running 5 foot gauge. I don't think they minded that the two sides had different gauges, but I doubt that anyone changed gauge on purpose to try to make it more difficult for the other side. The only railroad that I know of that changed gauge was the Pennsy.
  14. Pitchwife

    Pitchwife Dreamer

    There must have been rail traffic between the north and the south before the war. I can't imagine that gauges naturally changed at the Mason Dickson line. Also, in those 4 years tracks had to have been destroyed and rebuilt, so it would be advantageous to rebuild in a manner that would be useless to the enemy.
  15. MasonJar

    MasonJar It's not rocket surgery

    In many cases where the gauge changed, the freight was actually unloaded and reloaded into new cars to continue. This extra expense was also one of the drivers towards a "standard" gauge.

    In Newfoundland (Canada), there was a narrow gauge railway. I believe that once the rolling stock had reached Newfoundland by ferry, it was lifted off its trucks and set on narrow gauge trucks to continue its journey...!

  16. Modlerbob

    Modlerbob New Member

    I recall reading now the England had several different "gauges" in use until Parliment finally passed laws requiring that one standard be adopted. I think I also read that the implementation was accomplished in just one 24 hour period.

    Bob DeWoody
  17. Fluesheet

    Fluesheet Member

    I didn't know that about the Pennsylvania. Early northern railroads were all over the map as gaugewise, but as already noted by the time the Civil war rolled around, railroads had consolidated and had largely adopted "standard" gauge.

    One that stands out (in my limited knowledge) is the Erie - it started wiiiide (6' gauge!) and stayed that way until 1880. When they changed to standard, it was accomplished in 1 day (maybe this is the event you were thinking of ModlerBob?)!

    Interesting period newspaper article on the conversion here:

    At the same site, I found another account of why 4' 8 1/2" became standard - this is from an 1881 newspaper article that can be found here: . I hadn't before heard of this theory, and have no idea if the U shaped rail reference is accurate. Plausible though.

    "When Stephen-son built the first railroad the gauge adopted was five feet between the centers of the rails. The rails were then U- shaped, they had a trough in the center about three inches in width, for the wheel to run in. But this form was soon abandoned, because the dirt collected in it, and the edge, or T-shaped rail was adopted. In order to adapt this to the rolling stock then in use, it was found necessary to measure the gauge on the inside of the rails, and this four-feet eight and one half inches, which thus became the standard gauge."

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