CHARLOTTE, NC. Did you ever wonder what measures inventors and engineers used to determine the gauge of American railroad tracks? Probably not. But the history of this and other lore involving railroads is most interesting and worth telling. That’s especially true for trivia buffs. Hence, today’s en-gaugue-ing Myth Trivia column.
Let’s begin our exploration of railroads with a story that’s most popular with trivia fans. But one that’s only partially true. It goes all the way back to the days when the Roman Empire was at its peak.
Railroads. And… the ruins of Pompeii?
Anyone who’s ever visited the ruins of Pompeii in Italy, about three hours south of Rome, can attest that the ruts carved out by Imperial chariots still remain visible in many locales near the ongoing excavations.
The popular version of this story goes something like this. Since the Roman Empire was so vast, everyone everywhere had to use the same gauge (standard measurement) for determining the spacing between their wagon wheels. Otherwise, they might risk breaking down while traveling.
On to the wagon makers…
As this fact or legend moves forward in time, as the Romans expanded into Great Britain, the men who built wagons and carts professionally gradually expanded their techniques into newer wagons and more modern conveyances that employed similar techniques. As era of railroads began, coming into full flower by the mid-19th century, the art of wagon-making and wagon wheel technology evolved again.
Rather than go to the expense of retooling their standard equipment entirely, the descendants of these traditional craftsmen simply continued using the same wheel gauge they’d always used, just adapting it to the construction of railroad cars. Thus, that gauge, created in ancient times, became more or less the modern standard in the construction of Industrial Age railroads. The major difference? Instead of making sure wagon wheels tracked with the usual roadway ruts, train wheels rode atop iron tracks laid in the same gauge throughout the length of the railway.
From railways to rocket ships
Thus, when English expatriates moved to the US and began building railroads here, the traditional spacing of 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches was established as the accepted distance between tracks. That held true even though many experts failed to agree that this distance was optimal.
As the story story or legend continued into the 20th century, the original Pompeiian wheel gauge also supposedly played a pivotal role in the American space program. However, we reserve this iteration of the tale for our conclusion.
And now for the real story
As for the real story, which is still fascinating but far less so than the legend, it seems that American engineer Walton W. Evans determined to find out if the Roman chariots of Pompeii could have actually been the genesis of the longtime legend.
Using metric measurements, Walton calculated that the chariots did, indeed, have a span of 4 feet, 9 inches. This was consistent with the theories of the day, though slightly wider than popular belief. Later archaeology confirmed that this span was, indeed, the Romans’ common gauge.
Going further back, tne oral tradition says the original wheel gauge had been established by Julius Caesar, who set it to correspond with two strides of a Roman soldier. The goal: to standardize the width of ruts to accommodate his war chariots But this tradition is no longer generally accepted.
Over time, the continuing survival of this gauge for road vehicles in Western Europe, including Great Britain, resulted in its being carried over to the early railways.
More and more opinions
English railway historian Charles E. Lee thought the long-established standard gauge probably represents the optimal size of a road vehicle relative to the size of a horse. Anything less would under-utilize the horse. Contrary-wise, anything greater could put excessive strain on the animal.
Since actual horses had no relevance to railroading (horsepower of engines excepted), the reasons behind the traditional wheel gaugue were no longer as significant as they were in the past. Certainly, the 4 feet, 8-1/2 gauge was not entirely inappropriate. It allowed passenger cars to seat two people in comfort on each side of an aisle that was still wide enough for people to pass between. Even so, many observers, including James J. Hill, David P. Morgan and Adolf Hitler, believed the recognized gauge was less than ideal.
In the US, the gauge of 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches developed because American engineers erroneously expected to use a great many British locomotives. Early railroads never anticipated the interchange of equipment.
Standards begin to vary
When the Baltimore & Ohio and Boston & Albany railway established the 4 feet, 8-1/2 inch standard, the traditional gauge was off to a flying start. The Pennsylvania soon chose to use 4 feet, 9 inches, which was compatible.
However, gauges for Southern US railroads were wider, usually 5 feet. Meanwhile, partly for military reasons, Canadian railways adopted a standard of 5 feet, 6 inches.
With the onset of the Civil War, gauge differences between America’s railroads became undesirable, largely due to the need to rapidly movem supplies and equipment. Following the war, Abraham Lincoln, deferred to the 4 foot. 8-1/2 inch standard to make the planned transcontinental railroad consistent with the most important Eastern railroads built on that gauge.
Canada followed suit in 1872-1873. Southern railroads began adapting as well with a massive conversion blitz launched on Memorial Day weekend 1886. As a consequence, North American railway gauges have been standardized since the end of the 19th century at 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches.
Oh, and about that twist we mentioned…
Check out photos of the Space Shuttles as they sit on their Cape Canaveral launch pad. Note the two huge booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These solid rocket boosters (SRB) are made in Utah. Designers there once wanted to make them a bit fatter.
But the government ships SRBs by train from the Utah factory to the launch site. Which means they must pass through a tunnel in the mountains. And those SRBs need to fit through that tunnel. So, a major Space Shuttle rocket design feature – a major part of what arguably proved the world’s most advanced transportation system at that point – was actually settled science over two thousand years ago, determined at the very beginning by the design of Rome’s Imperial chariots.
And, as Paul Harvey would say “That’s the end of the story.” Certainly one that is most en-gauge-ing.
— Headline image: An Acela Express high-speed train passing Old Saybrook station on its way to Boston, Massachusetts.
(Image via Wikipedia entry on railroad transportation, CC 3.0 license)
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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