The Romans and the Space Shuttle

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


Merry Christmas

I HOPE YOU ALL having a great Christmas. Takes awhile acoming – then it’s gone in a flash!


Did you know that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was not Rudolph at all. She was Rudolphina. Yes, she was female. Why? Because only female reindeers still have their antlers (not horns) at Christmas. They grow them in the summer and lose them in the spring after giving birth.

Male reindeers also grow them in the summer but lose them around the end of November/mid-December.   There’s more: female reindeers (Cervidae) are the only female deer that grow antlers – you won’t find them on any other species of  female deer.


That means we have to rename some of the Chritsmas gang. Dasher, Dancer,
Prancer, Vixen, Comet (who can tell the difference between a male/female comet fish?) can all keep their names. Cupid – as a male god of love, the closest female version of him is probably Venus. Donner becomes Donna, and Blitzen …. hmmm …. let’s stay with that, just don’t argue with her.


There goes Santa and the girls (Rudolphina appears to be is missing)

The Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry (real name Orvon Grover Autry – yes, I’d change it as well), first made the ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ song a No 1 hit in December 1949.  Autry’s recording sold 1.75 million copies its first Christmas season, eventually selling a total of 12.5 million. Cover versions included, sales exceed 150 million copies, second only to Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’.  Such information!

Gene Autry

Orvon ‘Gene’ Autry (1907-98)

I wish you all a Happy New Year


FOLLOWING ON from Socrates last week, let’s have a brief look at one of his students, Plato.

Plato was born of an Athenian aristocratic family and his philosophy was a continuation of the theories of Socrates. In fact, Socrates was used by Plato as the main participant in his early dialogues and it is not always certain whether it is Plato’s or Socrates’ thoughts that are quoted (as they everything Socrates allegedly said was written down by Plato – but you knew that from last week). They were more likely developments of Socrates’ views.


Plato (427-347 BC)

Plato’s best known work is his Republic which is based on his idea of justice. The Greek word for justice is dikaiosune and it involves the idea to act rightly in one’s own dealings with others – social virtue of ‘par excellence’ – or, perhaps, ‘morality’.  Plato considered a just man will not harm anyone, in any sense. Justice was a virtue that regulated our relationship with others and we will be judged on that relationship.


“We believe in Justice”

In The Republic, Plato attempted to find a solution to Socrates’ theory that nobody willingly does wrong. He divided the mind or soul into two parts which could be in conflict with each other, to create a balance. In other words, one part of the mind knew good but it may not be able to control the other part of the mind. He clarified this by saying that, in effect, self-controlled people are those whose sense of reason was in control of their desires. However, not all people had this self-control: they may know what was good, by their reason, but their baser desires seek something else under the misapprehension that it was good. That baser desire defeated the reason and a bad action or vice was the result rather than virtue.

self control

Another theory

Plato developed the ideal within the soul and then divided it into three parts:

(i)  Reason – which is wisdom, the rational part.

(ii) Spirit – which is courage, the emotional part.

(iii) Temperance – which is harmony and justice.

One must come to terms with all three factors within oneself to discover true virtue. He regarded it as a form of physical health without which life was meaningless as it was without psychological order.  These three factors were the underlying properties essential for the possession of virtues in Plato’s mind. They were natural to a healthy existence and he suggested that goodness was the health and harmony of the personality – being that justice in society was a harmonious relationship between the classes.


Still with me?

Here he compared the three factors with the Polis or city state – showing how one could live in harmony with oneself in a similar manner as within the city state:

  • the guardian class of the state was wisdom
  • the military class or auxiliaries were the trained soldiers and therefore courageous and with spirit
  • the economic working class helped balance the temperance.

The idea of splitting the soul into three parts was to prevent a single soul running away with the mere satisfaction of immediate desires, as opposed to the idea of complete happiness which could be achieved by considering all three factors. This would allow true harmony in life and this harmony was relative to one’s knowledge of oneself and one’s world.    Get it?


Plato was responsible for the establishment of his ‘Academy’ (Academeia), which concentrated on the teaching of mathematics (from the work of Pythagoras) and philosophy.  Science was rejected and logic took its place.  His historical interest was very limited, having little time for the likes of Miltiades, Themistocles or Pericles (Athenian statesmen). He was more concerned with law and order (see his Republic and Laws) than in the actual politics of Athens. Democracy was not something he accepted (nor did his pupil, Aristotle) as he considered it irresponsible, believing that the state should not be ruled by amateurs, but by a smaller and more intellectual group, who would be groomed from birth, and whose laws would be Forms or Ideas created through their contemplation of life or intuition – an intellectual oligarchy (hence his idea of a three-part city state or Polis mentioned above).


Plato’s ‘Academy’ rejected science for maths and logic

Okay, that’s enough classical culture for the moment


NOW A BIT of classical culture for you for a couple of weeks – Socrates and Plato. Come back … you may find it interesting.

Okay, so what was Socrates all about?  Well, he did not spend his whole life considering philosophy. He was originally a sculptor and did not avoid his duties as a soldier.  However, he was, from an early age, interested in philosophy and listened to many eminent personnel. Physics was his first learning but he could see no future in it and it soon made way for ethics and virtue.

socrates sculptr

Socrates was originally a sculptor

Socrates did not take to writing down his thoughts for posterity. What is believed to be his theories stem from the writings of Plato (talk about him next week) and we understand that he (Socrates) considered that wisdom was the main virtue of life.  Wisdom was a major factor in being able to live a good and happy life as, by its very nature, it was able to distinguish between good and bad. In this respect, wisdom included knowledge. Socrates suggested that wrong actions damaged the soul and so by knowing an action was wrong but still proceeding with it, the transgressor would knowingly damage his soul. As no-one wanted to damage his soul, no-one would willingly do wrong. Therefore, if someone did wrong he must be ignorant and lacked virtue.  Simple.

Socrates (470/469 – 399 BC)

The problem with this theory was that there were few teachers of knowledge.  So who had the knowledge to teach and of what? Socrates believed the he, himself, could not teach as he knew that he knew nothing – meaning in the sphere in which he was searching.  Knowledge, here, is episteme, which is science. In Plato’s works, Socrates never directly answered any question put to him; he would confront it with questions and criticisms of his own, allowing the enquirer to come to his own conclusion.  If nothing else, Socrates was clear in his ability to be vague and non-committal (I know a few people like that today). The manner in which he was able to demonstrate the lack of knowledge of his enquirer (according to Plato), particularly with regard to their ideal of life and the gods, was to gain him many enemies who believed him to be opposing the basics of religion and morality.


“I know no wrong …. but then I know nothing”

The next best thing to knowledge, according to Socrates, was opinion – which was susceptible to change. This was a virtue in itself, provided it was accompanied by the knowledge that it was only an opinion. An opinion without this awareness was ignorance. Socrates wanted his pupils to think for themselves. His ideal of morality was based on the individual’s own conscience rather than the will of the state. He influenced the noble and the distinguished, particularly those who sometimes confused their conscience with ideals of power and glory, ideals that conflicted with the traditional virtues of the polis (city state). Unfortunately, this was to cause his downfall. In 399 BC, he was charged, found guilty, and sentenced to death for injuring the city and corrupting the young. It is almost certain that this was partly due to his association with Alcibiades and Critias (he was their teacher), who were out of favour in Athens and he was to blame for their radical and anti-Athenian attitudes.


Remember ‘Alcibiades the Lad’ (see post May 10, 2015)

Socrates could well have saved himself. He was given an opportunity to reduce his death sentence to a large fine but such oratory was beneath him. He would have to have accepted that he was wrong which he refused to do. He was convinced that he was the people’s greatest benefactor and he deserved honour not death and, least of all, the need to beg for life.  Also, as the sentence was deferred for a month due to the festival of Delos, he had an opportunity to escape as he still had influential and wealthy friends. He chose to await his death as to plead for his life or run from his persecutors would be most dishonourable for a man such as himself.


Death of Socrates (by Jaques Louis David, 1787)

Next week: Plato

Battle of Waterloo

ONE LAST anniversary before the year is out – this time the Battle of Waterloo which took place two hundred years ago on 18th June 1815. It seems to be a year of historical anniversaries.

1812-1814 saw the War of the Sixth Coalition between Napoleon and the allies which included Austria, Prussia, Sweden, Great Britain and a number of German states.  In 1814, while Great Britain, Spain and Portugal invaded France across the Pyrenees, the Russians, Austrians and their allies invaded France across the Rhine and, after the Battle for Paris, entered into negotiations with members of the French government for the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte. Nobody had anything against the French – this was a ‘personal thing’ against Bonaparte.  It ended with the Treaty of Fontainebleau and the exile of Napoleon to Elba in April 1814.


Abdication of Napoleon at Fontainebleau

But not for long. Napoleon escaped from Elba in February 1815 and marched on Paris with the intention of claiming the throne from King Louis XVIII of France. Napoleon simply did not know when to quit.

The Seventh Coalition was established between allied countries with Great Britain, the Netherlands and Prussia in particular not wishing to see Napoleon back in power.  Napoleon had decided that the best course of action for success was to move before the Coalition could fully mobilise. He met the coalition armies at Waterloo (in present day Belgium).


Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) – never knew when to quit!

Napoleon’s troops of some 118,000 outnumbered the Coalition’s of about 70,000 (the figures vary depending on source). Not only that but the latter were inexperienced and ill-equipped. Also, two days before the battle Napoleon had routed a Prussian force under Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. Things didn’t look good for the Coalition. But the allies were led by Field Marshall Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and he had other ideas. Fortunately for him Blücher had rallied his 30,000 (approx) Prussians and joined in the affray early in the evening and by 8.30 pm Napoleon was defeated (see link at the end for more information on the battle).


Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) – born just 3 months before Napoleon

Wellington was to describe the battle as ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.’ Around 44,000 men and 12,000 horses were killed or wounded (again these figures depend on source).


The famous image of Wellington at Waterloo

This battle brought the War of the Seventh Coalition to an end and became a defining moment in European history and the end of Napoleon’s reign as Emperor of France. Napoleon escaped to Paris but a month later surrendered on broad HMS Bellerophon on the 15th July 1815. He was sent to St Helena, and island off the west coast of Africa, where he died in May 1821.

'Scene in Plymouth sound in August 1815' oil on canvas by John James Chalon, 1816

HMS Bellerphon (John James Chalon, 1816)

For a detailed (and colourful) description of the Battle of Waterloo click here.


If you go down to the woods today ….

THE OTHER WEEKEND I was left alone for a night whilst Sarah went to see her mother in Hampshire. Well, I thought I was alone – then, after a glass of wine or two, I realised I was not alone at all.  There were our teddy bears all keen to be spoken to.

We have two teddy bears in the conservatory, Horatio and Mortimer, and they guard the chairs from possession by our cat. Then there are three more teddy bears in the house – my bear who, believe it or not, is called Teddy and is as old as I am; and Sarah’s two teddy bears, one as old as her and one brought back from Hong Kong by her father returning from his Royal Naval duties in the  mid-1960s. These three teddy bears live together in the lounge/study but I decided that they could come and join Horatio, Mortimer and myself in the conservatory that evening.


Horatio (admiral bear)


Mortimer (barrister bear)


Sarah’s ‘one-eyed’ white teddy (as old as her); my blue teddy (as old as me, complete with Brighton College school scarf);  Sarah’s brown musical teddy (from Hong Kong)

There are one or two other smaller teddy bears around the house but they are a little shy and difficult to talk to, so we’ll leave them alone.

The name teddy bear comes from ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, the President of the USA, 1901-1909. It came about when Roosevelt went on a hunting trip in Mississippi in 1902 to which he had been invited by the Governor of the State, Andrew H. Longino.  After three days hunting most of the hunters had found a bear but  Roosevelt had not. Then Roosevelt’s attendants, led by Holt Collier, captured an elderly black bear which had been chased by the dogs. Collier tied the bear to a tree and called for Roosevelt to come and shoot it.


Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt (1858-1919)

When Roosevelt arrived at the scene he declined to shoot the bear as that would have been unsportsmanlike. However, the bear was greatly distressed having been attacked by the dogs and so Roosevelt ordered it to be put down. The incident was ‘recorded’ in a cartoon by Clifford Berryman in The Washington Post on the 6th November 1902 – it shows a small black bear held by an attendant with Roosevelt turning away refusing to have anything to do with the situation.  Later similar cartoons showed the bear even smaller and in much fear.

TheodoreRooseveltTeddyBear (1)

The cartoon in The Washington Post

A Brooklyn shopkeeper, Morris Michtom, saw the cartoon and created a small soft bear cub and put it in his shop window with a sign, ‘Teddy’s bear’. In fact, he had written to Roosevelt, sending him a bear, and the President had allowed him to use his name ‘Teddy’.  The toy bears were a great success and Michtom set up the Idea Novelty and Toy Co selling them.


Early 1900s teddy bear in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, manufactured by Benjamin Michtom, son of Morrris, and owned by Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit Roosevelt (no comments on that name please you muppets) 

Interestingly, about the same time, and unaware of Michtom and his creation, the German, Richard Steiff, nephew of Margarete Steiff whose company manufactured toy fabric animals (but not bears), hit on the idea of a  bear.  He exhibited a type ’55 PB’ at the Leipzig Toy Fair in March 1903 and Herman Berg, a buyer for George Borgfeldt, New York, ordered 3000 of them for the USA.  Neither Michtom nor Steiff were aware of each others activities but soon the name ‘Teddy’ became linked to all such bears.

Replica of a Steiff 55 PB

Anyway, back to my teddy bears …….. Ah, I must go now as I see two gentlemen in white coats are knocking on my door.


The Curse of Cowdray House

THESE DAYS most people know Cowdray Park in Midhurst, West Sussex, for its polo (and golf course) and ochre-coloured estate buildings. But there is a magnificent ruin of a Tudor house also there – okay, you knew that as well.  But did you know why it’s a ruin?  The monk’s curse of course!


The original house, named Coudreye, was built between 1273 and 1284 by Sir John Bohun. It was acquired by Sir David Owen (Henry VII’s uncle) on the death of his wife, Mary Bohun, in 1496. He built the current Cowdray House in 1520.  In 1529, Sir Owen’s son, Henry, sold the house to Sir William Fitzwilliam.  It became the home of Sir Anthony Browne when he inherited it from Sir William, his half-brother, in 1543. It remained one of his principal residences until his death just five years later in 1548.


Cowdray House as it may have looked c1545

The house was then inherited by his son, also Sir Anthony Browne – later 1st Viscount Montague.  Much the same time (following the Dissolution of the Monasteries of 1536-41), Sir Anthony is said to have expelled the monks from the nearby Priory at Easebourne. An embittered monk raged into Cowdray House where Sir Anthony was feasting and cursed his family line, shouting, “by fire and water, thy line shall come to an end and it shall perish out of this land” [1]. Harsh, bearing in mind it wasn’t Sir Anthony who had dissolved the monasteries ……


Sir Anthony Browne, 1st Viscount Montague, 1528-92 (portrait by Hans Eworth 1569)

Well, the curse rather fizzled out. That is until 200 years later in the 18th century. Cowdray House, under the ownership of the 8th Viscount Montague (George Browne), was destroyed by fire on the 24th September 1793, ironically, during restoration work. A few days later, the Viscount (unaware of the fire) drowned foolishly attempting to shoot the rapids at the falls of the Schauffhausen on the Rhine.  The 9th Viscount died childless in 1797 and with that the peerage became extinct. There’s more. The 8th Viscount’s sister, Elizabeth, became heir to Cowdray and married William Stephen Poyntz and in the summer of 1815 their two sons were drowned in a boating accident off Bognor Regis in West Sussex.  Cowdray House was never restored and remains a ruin today.   Spooky or what?!


The House after the fire (above and below)


The Cowdray estate was sold ‘out of the family’ by Poyntz’s three daughters to the 6th Earl of Egremont in 1843.  In 1908 the 8th Earl sold the estate (including the ruin) to Sir Weetman Dickinson Pearson, later (in 1917) 1st Viscount Cowdray.

Battle of the Solent (Mary Rose) painting

On the subject of the Mary Rose (as I was last week), Cowdray House was also famous for its painting of the Battle of the Solent when Henry VIII’s ship, Mary Rose, sunk (see also post, March 21). Well, I say ‘famous’ – it would have been if the painting still existed. Unfortunately it was destroyed in the 1793 fire. But fortunately a copy had been made eight years earlier.

cowdray mary rose

The Cowdray ‘copy’ of the Battle of the Solent (6ft in length)

The original of this painting was probably painted between 1545 and 1548 for Sir Anthony Browne who was Master of the King’s Horse (he was the father of ‘the cursed’ Sir Anthony Browne, 1st Viscount Montague – see above).  He is shown prominently in the centre of the image riding a white horse following just behind King Henry VIII who is also mounted (see just above the large English flag bottom middle – and see pic below). The picture was one of a set of five which adorned the walls of the dining hall at Cowdray House.


Henry VIII and Sir Anthony Browne (on white horse) from the Cowdray ‘copy’

The Society of Antiquities of London commissioned the Sherwin brothers to make a watercolour copy of the original wall painting of the Portsmouth scene and this was completed by 1775.  Recording the image had been made at the suggestion of Sir Joseph Ayloffe (1708 – 1781) who read a paper to the Society about the wall paintings at Cowdray House in 1773. Thank goodness for Sir Joseph!



[1] There is another version: Prior to his inheritance of Cowdray House, Sir Anthony Brown had received Battle Abbey in East  Sussex (where the Battle of Hastings had allegedly taken place). A dispossessed monk from Battle Abbey is said to have cursed the family with those words.