Railroad Q & A
Have you ever wondered why the U.S. standard railroad gauge (the distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8½ inches?
Probably not, but you must admit it’s a peculiar number. Like many of our US measuring systems, the origin was British. Their standards were applied to the U.S. railroads.
Why did the British build them like that?
Because that is the gauge that the pre-railroad British tramway system used.
Why did the British begin using that gauge?
Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons and applied the same wheel spacing.
Then, how was the measurement established for wagon wheel spacing?
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 was the established 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. The roads have been used ever since.
And the ruts in the roads?
The standard-size Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels.
So the United States standard railroad gauge of 4′ 8.5″ is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot?
Truth is stranger than fiction.
What Roman horse’s ass came up with that number?
The answer is two. The Imperial Roman war chariots were designed just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.
When Napoleon marched on Russia, his army made much slower progress than planned once they reached eastern Europe because the ruts deviated from Roman gauge. As a result of this delay, they got caught in the fields during the Russian winter rather than on the outskirts of Moscow. And then, of course, they lost the war.
As you look at this photo of the space shuttle, you’ll notice the two big rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are the solid rocket boosters. They are produced at the Thiokol rocket plant in Utah. The engineers who designed the rocket boosters might have preferred to design them to be a bit wider, but because had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site, the size of booster rocket’s design was limited by the fact that the connecting rail line runs through a mountain tunnel only slightly wider than the railroad track.
So, the outer dimensions of space shuttle’s booster rockets were not as much determined by rocket scientists, but once again by… two imperial roman horses’ asses.
(Edited excerpts from the National Review/January 24, 2000)
For over one hundred years, railroad executives worked with the mindset that they were in the railroad business. What if they had thought of themselves as players in the transportation business? Might we now see Union Pacific Airlines? Or, Santa Fe Overnight Delivery?
In what areas of your business do you complacently say; We’ve always done it that way? How has it effected your opportunities for innovation and growth? What strategic opportunities are you missing? In what areas is your future being determined by horses asses?
Unlike most Working SMART briefings, I am not the author here, only the editor of this historic example of standardization and resistance to change. It was compiled from five different internet resources.