On Romans, Railroads and rHobbits

Bilbo and Frodo Baggins
Bilbo and Frodo Baggins from Peter Jackson’s LOTR films

The interwebs inform me that today is Hobbit Day, it being the birthdays of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.  However, as I did not know this beforehand and as I’ve already done International Talk Like A Pirate Day this week, I’ll simply wish Messrs. Baggins and Baggins a very happy birthday and get on with my business for today…

…which is a bit of humour.  My dad sent me this in an e-mail during the week and it’s simply too good not to share.  I have not been able to ascertain who originally wrote it, but it has been circulating the net since at least 2000.  For the sake of maintaining the intellectual integrity of this blog (yeah, right) I am including these links to Snopes.com and The Straight Dope for those of you who are more interested in the actual facts (boring) behind this story.

How the design of the space shuttle was determined by the width of a horse’s arse

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 used?  Because that’s the way they built them in England, and English expatriates designed the US railroads.

English: Abandoned Railroad Tracks
Abandoned Railroad Tracks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 had used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

One of the earliest Kiev tram wagons, construc...
One of the earliest Kiev tram wagons, constructed by the Struve brothers (1892), based on American designs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 (including England) for their legions.  Those roads have been used ever since.

Wheel ruts on a street corner in the ruins at ...
Wheel ruts on a street corner in the ruins at Pompeii, Italy. The raised stones are a crosswalk for pedestrians, to keep feet up out of the street, which doubled as a sewer. Cart wheels ran between the raised stones. Visible on either side in the background are the remains of shops and offices. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.  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.

English: Roman chariot at Viroconium This is a...
English: Roman chariot at Viroconium This is a typical chariot used for travel etc., very unstable and requiring considerable skill to control. Not used for fighting. Note the horse’s arses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bureaucracies live forever.  So the next time you are handed a specification/procedure/process and wonder, ‘What horse’s arse 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 two horses’ arses.)

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 Thiokol at their factory in Utah.

The Space Shuttle Discovery and its seven-memb...
Those big white things at the sides (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced vehicle was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s arse.

English: Railway Tunnel Old railway between Ba...
English: Railway Tunnel Old railway between Barlborough and Spinkhill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And you thought being a horse’s arse wasn’t important?  Ancient horse’s arses control almost everything…(and CURRENT Horse’s Arses in government building around the world are controlling everything else!)

(Disclaimer:  KokkieH and If All Else Fails…Use A Hammer take no responsibility for people believing and distributing the above story as factual.  All reasonable steps have been taken to communicate the true facts in this case and each reader is responsible for his/her own gullibility and stupidity.)

Have a great week! 😉

2 thoughts on “On Romans, Railroads and rHobbits

  1. LOL! 🙂 Set me up very nicely for the week. I will never be able to ride the train again without thinking of equine backsides…:-) (isn’t your gauge the same as ours in NZ – 3’6″? I don’t know about SA, but based on the behaviour of some our train staff I can’t help thinking this gauge has something to do with donkeys…)


    1. I thought you’d enjoy this one, what with your train book on the bestseller list and all 😉

      I’ve no idea what the rail gauge is in SA. I know we mostly have Cecil John Rhodes to thank for our rail network – I learned at school many moons ago that he wanted to connect Cape Town and Cairo by rail – but that’s about as far as my knowledge on the subject goes.


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