The US standard railroad gauge (width between the two 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 the US railroads were built by English expatriates. 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 used for building wagons which used that wheel spacing.
Okay! 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? The first long distance roads in Europe (and England) were built by Imperial
Rome for their legions. The roads have been used ever since. And the ruts in the roads?
Roman war chariots first formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for
fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for (or by) Imperial
Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. The United States standard
railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original specification for an
Imperial Roman war chariot. Specifications and bureaucracies live forever. So the next
time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse's behind came up with it, you
may be exactly right, because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough
to accommodate the back ends of two war horses. Thus, we have the answer to the original
Now the twist to the story.............. There's an interesting extension to the story
about railroad gauges and horses' behinds. When we 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
The engineers who designed the SRBs might 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 had to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through
that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track
is about as wide as two horses' behinds.