Modern Technology and Horses' Asses (Recyled)

I posted the following piece on spaces.msn on 27th February 2006. Since someone mentioned it recently, I thought I will recycle it here. When I wrote it, I had forgotten to mention that way back when I was just beginning my career at a marine transportation agency, we ran into flak for then limiting the number of passengers that could be carried on the water boats in Brunei including the lucrative BSB-Bangar route. According to the law, the number of passengers carried was 12. One of the owners challenged us - why 12? Was there a technical specification? The law was the law was our answer. But quietly I did some research. That law that we cited was based on an older legislation which was based on another legislation. I managed to trace that legislation to an 1870 British legislation (if I am not mistaken) and the number was then 12, more than 100 years ago. And it still did not explain why. I gave up. So enjoy the piece of why certain laws can take shape many many years ago:-

Sometimes we don't realize what the past has done to shape the modern world, intentionally or otherwise. Take this story for instance about the US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) for trains. The gauge is exactly 4 feet 8.5 inches. If a train system had actually managed to operate in Brunei we would have the same measurement too. (Extra info - there is an old railtrack near Lumut, unfortunately or fortunately that's about the last time Brunei had any trains.) This same gauge is used on the British inter-cities and the ultra-modern high speed lines as France's TGV, Germany's ICE and the Japanese Shinkansen Bullet Trains.

Anyway, why use this measurement? Apparently this is the gauge used by the English who built them in England and who then built them in the US. Why did the English used that gauge? It's because the people who first build trains are the same people who first build the tramways they used in cities in England. They used the same equipment and other what nots to then build trains. And why did these people used the gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches? It's because they were using again the same equipment that they had used for building wagons to build tramways.

Why did wagons have that 4 feet 8.5 inches measurement? Apparently if they had used some other measurement, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England and Europe because that was the spacing of the wheel ruts. Who was it then who built those rutted old roads? It was the Romans! The roads were formed by Roman war chariots made to specifications by the Imperial Rome government for use throughout Europe.

So, the modern rail track used by Americans and more than 60% of the railtracks in the world are influenced by the military specifications decided more than 2,000 years ago. And why did the Romans choose that width? It is because the Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back end of the two war horses that hauled the chariots. So today, you have it, the world's modern train track width was decided upon by the width of the buttocks of horses!

Interestingly, the engineers who made the booster rockets attached to the Space Shuttle were forced to the width they have now because those booster rockets had to be delivered by train from factory to the launch site and the train had to run through a tunnel where the tunnel is just slightly wider than the train tracks and train tracks obivously were the width of two horses' rear ends.

So a major design of the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years agao by the width of a horse's back end!
Some people have used this story to make the point that a government's bureaucracy and technical specifications lived forever. Me? I leave you to make up your own mind, but it does seem to be a case of the old saying, “if it works, don’t change it!” even if it's 2,000 years old.


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