In this blogposting...
* AGM XXXIX
* Yes - But Why?Read on and be amazed...
Our first AGM of 2013 will take place at 1200 this upcoming Wednesday 9 January.
As far as I am concerned, it will start at the Lit and Phil and rapidly decamp (as it were) to The Milecastle pub just up the street.
As far as everyone else is concerned, it will already have started there.
It’ll be good to see you. And remember - it’s Hildie’s birthday AGM so I want at least 100 people in attendance.
YES - BUT WHY?
Throughout the world, the standard railway gauge - the distance between the inside edges of the rails - is 4ft 8½ins (1.46m). With some exceptions, it’s the same everywhere - from China and Japan, through Australia, Africa and the Americas to continental Europe.
As well as attracting a round of well-earned applause as a ground-breaking example of international co-operation, this fact also prompts a fairly obvious question from anyone with a sense of curiosity.
Namely...why is the worldwide standard railway gauge such an apparently arbitrary distance?
The explanation is intriguing and surprising.
When tracks were first laid down some time in the 17th century, they were used for the transportation of coal in English coal-mines, both above and below ground - including, of course, in the pits of north-east England, where they were called tramways.
(As far as I know, tram and tramway are the only words which the north-east dialect has given to the world.)
At the time, the gauge was measured between the outer edges of the tracks - a much more sensible figure of 5ft.
Yes - but why were the lines laid at that precise distance from each other?
Because they were mostly built by the same craftsmen who also built the wagons that ran on them, and using the same tools. And the wheels of those wagons were 5ft apart.
Yes, but why were the wagon wheels 5ft apart?
Because - before the invention of railways - wagons had to travel on England’s deeply-rutted roads and the ruts were invariably about 5 ft apart.
Yes - but why?
Because almost all of England’s usable roads were originally built by the Romans and had remained unimproved since. And the wheels of Roman chariots and supply-carts were 5ft apart. Hence the ruts.
Yes - but why did the Romans build their chariots and supply-carts with wheels about 5ft apart?
Because the Roman Empire had an efficient bureaucracy which recognised the cost-effectiveness of standardisation. If you need lots of chariots - and they did - then build them all to a standard format so they can be used anywhere.
Yes - but why were the wheels 5ft apart?
Because a chariot or wagon with wheels that far apart can be drawn by two horses side by side, which was the optimum arrangement that the Romans preferred. For a small chariot, two horses could easily be replaced by one. For a heavy supply-cart, two horses could be replaced between the traces by an ox.
So, to put it bluntly…
The standard 21st century worldwide railway gauge was determined by the width of two horses’ arses - and well over two thousand years ago.
And there’s an interesting modern update to this story, too.
If you ever watched footage of the Space Shuttle, you will have noticed two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are called 'solid rocket boosters', or SRBs.
The SRBs are made in a 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 railway 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 only slightly wider than the railway track and the railway track, as we now know, is about as wide as two Roman horses’ backsides.
A major Space Shuttle design feature - of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transport system - was determined by the width of England’s earliest tramways which was determined by the width of the wagon-wheel axles which was determined by the distance between the ancient ruts on England’s roads which was determined by the axle-width of Roman chariots and carts which was determined - yes, by the width of two horses’ arses.
We’ve come a long way without going very far.
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