What a horse’s ass…
There are many times I find things in life so ironic, so outrageous, so stupid that I can only think that the designer or originator of the idea was simply a horse’s ass. From product designers to politicians from Florida to Arizona or Idaho to Texas it seems we can’t find our way forward to progress ourselves out of a paper bag.
Now, we all know that the United States is generations behind in the creation of high speed rail technology than so many other countries in the world. Why might this be? What is it with the richest country in the world being incapable of connecting it’s citizens with high speed rail lines that cris cross the country like China, Singapore, or other European countries have accomplished? With the recent train crashes in Ohio it makes one wonder why our infrastructure is so damaged and outdated. Perhaps it is because our politicians have their heads stuck up their…I mean, perhaps our politicians are incapable of thinking past the dark ages. It seems that way more and more and more and more.
Let’s first take a look at the US standard railroad gauge, you know the distance between the rails, which is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an rather strange and odd number. Why was that gauge used?
Simply because that's the way they built them in England, and English engineers designed the first US railroads. And 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. That might beg the question then as to “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. Well, that only brings us to another question of “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. Which brings us to “Who built those old rutted roads?”
Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe, which includes England, for their legions. I imagine you have heard the saying “all roads lead back to Rome”. 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. Again, politicians can’t seem to think their way out of a paper bag. 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. Or rather the width of two horses' asses.
Now, here is a modern 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 ever created by humans, was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's ass.
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