WHAT HAVE THE ROMANS DONE FOR … the Space Shuttle? Well, does the statement, “We’ve always done it that way” ring any bells?
Back in the Victorian days in England, engineers built train tracks a standard 4 feet, 8.5 inches (143.5 centimetres) apart – called the gauge. They were simply following the pattern of the previous tramway tracks, which, in turn, were following the old wagon width spacing between wheels. Why? Because they were all using the same old tooling that had existed back in the days of wagon transportation.
Old British tram (on 4 ft 8.5 ins track)
English railway track – 4 feet, 8.5 inches (143.5 centimetres) apart
So why were these wagon measurement so odd? Well, wagons used that particular wheel spacing because it fitted already existing ruts in the roads and any other size could cause damage to the wagons and discomfort to any passengers .
Wagon chassis (4 ft 8.5 ins wheel track)
So where did those existing ruts come from, I hear you ask? Ancient Rome, I answer. The Romans built very good roads to assist the movement of their legions which used chariots and wagons. These roads were not limited to Rome but spread throughout the Empire, including Great Britain. Some of these road were still being used in Victorian England along with their Roman wheel ruts. And what was that wheel spacing of these ancient ruts? 4 feet, 8.5 inches, of course.
Roman chariot road tracks (4 ft 8.5 ins apart)
Now in the United States of America it was the English who designed the railways and they use their own ‘tried and tested’ system involving the 4 feet, 8.5 inch gauge of track. So the United States standard railroad track is also based on the original specifications for an Ancient Roman chariot.
And bureaucracies live forever. So the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse’s ass came up with it, you may be exactly right, because the Roman chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the backsides of two horses – which happens to be 4 feet, 8.5 inches.
One half of the factor
What has this got to do with the Space Shuttle, you are wondering?
A Space Shuttle has two big solid rocket boosters (SRBs) attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These SRBs are made in Utah, USA, and had to be transported by rail to the launch site in Florida. The railroad line runs through several tunnels in the mountains over this route and, of course, the SRBs had to fit through those tunnels. As the tunnels are only slightly wider than the railroad track, the SRBs have to be the size of the track, which is ….. as wide as two horses’ backsides.
SRBs ether side of the Space Shuttle main fuel tank
So, there you have it – part of one of the most advanced means of transport in the world today has a design factor based on Ancient Roman travel several hundred years ago and featuring a consideration of two horses’ backsides.
Next week: Kit Carson in the Wild West
4 thoughts on “The Romans and the Space Shuttle”
I’m going to love reading back through all of these blogs.
I love it! Thank you.
So were French and Spanish chariots different? As I’m sure you know, the railway tracks are of different gauges in the two countries.
Enjoy your holiday!
Well, I’m no expert on international rail gauge but I thought the British and French gauge have always been much the same. Spanish gauge is slightly larger – 5 ft, 5.7 inches (167 cm). There are two possible reasons for this and neither to do with Roman chariots! (1) the Spanish made it specifically different to France to hinder possible French invasion in the 19th century; and/or (2) Spain is more mountainous and so made a wider gauge to accommodate more powerful locomotives.