No. 953



The late Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was born in my home state of Arkansas, and during his musical career he had many great hits, including one of my favorites titled “Folsom Prison Blues.”
This song begins with these words, “I hear a train a comin’, it’s rolling round the bend, and I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when. I’m stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps draggin’ on … down to San Antone.” To be sure, trains and railroad tracks have played an important role in our nation’s history. Awhile back I ran across some very interesting information about railroad tracks (and you can’t have trains running around the country if you don’t have tracks) that is not common knowledge. Some of it may be of interest to you.
For starters, did you know that the U.S. Standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches? That is an odd number but why was that gauge used? Well, to answer that question and many more, if you will come I want to take you all the way back to the Roman Empire and show you how the ancient Romans influenced the way railroad tracks are built in our nation today. To begin, the reason for this gauge is because that is the way they built them in England, and English expatriates designed the U.S. railroads.
You may ask, why did the English build them like that? It is because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that is the gauge they used. Again, you may ask, why did they use that gauge then? It is because the same jigs and tools were used for the building wagons, which used that wheel spacing. Again, you may ask, why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? The answer for the English was very simple. 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 is the spacing for the wheel ruts.
And this begs another question. Who built those old rutted roads? Now, stick with me because we are almost there. Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (including England) for their legions. Those roads have been used ever since. And who made the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else has 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. And here is the interesting part – it seems bureaucracies live forever. So the next time you are handed a specification procedure, or process, and wonder, “What horse’s ____ 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.
Now, here is an unusual twist to the story: When you see a space shuttle sitting on the launch pad, you will notice there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. The boosters are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. Engineers who designed the solid rocket boosters would have preferred them to be a bit larger, but they had to come by train. The tracks 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 track is about as wide as two horse’s behinds. So today, the design of a major shuttle was determined more than 2,000 years ago by the width of two horse’s behinds. So now you know.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Davidson is a public speaker and syndicated columnist. You may contact him at 2 Bentley Drive, Conway, AR 72034. To begin a bookcase literacy project visit You won’t go wrong helping a needy child.)