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W&H MAIN YARDS: US Standard Railroad Gauge

By Professor Tom O'Hare, Germanic Languages, University of Texas at Austin

(Editor's Note: The technical validity of this theory is questionable, but is presented here more as one of those things that make you go HMMM.)

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 ft 8 1/2 in (1.44 m). That's an exceedingly odd number.

Why is that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England, and the US railroads were built by English ex patriots.

Why did the English build 'em 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 as they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

OK! Why did the wagons use that wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagons would break on some of the old, long distance roads, because that's the spacing of the ruts.

So who built these old rutted roads? The first long distance roads in Europe were built by Imperial Rome for the benefit of their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts? The initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of breaking their wagons, were first made by Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made by or for Imperial Rome they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing (ruts again).

Thus we have the answer to the original question. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 ft 8 1/2 in derives from the original military specification (MilSpec) for an Imperial Roman army war chariot. MisSpecs (and bureaucracies) live forever!

Reply from:
Mike Tuciarone, tooch@auspex.com

Fascinating. I showed this to my wife, medieval studies major and horsewoman, who points out that the spacing of wheels on the Roman chariot was like as not dictated by the width of the yoke that attached the chariot to the horse, and the need to keep the wheel ruts well out of the path of the loose earth the hooves are kicking up.

Thus, the gauge of the Iron Horse might be in fact derived from the width of the standard Roman warhorse.

Reply from:
Tim Hill, tnh@ksr.com

I recall reading many years ago that, when asked to approve the standardization of the US railroad gauge, President Lincoln asked why it was such an odd number. Not satisfied with "gosh, I don't know, I guess 'cause that's the way they do it in England," Lincoln did a little research himself and learned about the Roman chariot ruts. The president didn't see this as sufficient reason for setting such a peculiar standard and proposed a 5 ft. 0 in. gauge.

Of course, the beauraucracy got its way.

anonymous reply:

Well, the standard gauge was settled a few years after Lincoln's death (1873?). The ``bureaucracy got its way'' partly because forcing a change would have required rebuilding the rail-link across the Rockies. Widening the gauge (even by four inches) would have required widening ledges and tunnels that were hard to carve out of the mountains in the first place. As it was, at least one railroad managed to change something like 1800 miles of track one Sunday.

It wasn't the bureaucracy, it was the railroads. Before the advent of the standard guage, freight would be loaded into railroad cars at the factory, then transferred from one car to another every time it crossed from one railway to the next. The standard gauge allowed one car to go from origin to final destination without being unloaded.

A wider gauge is actually better --- trains can go faster and remain stable. Isambard Kingdom Brunel built the Great Western Railway with a SEVEN FOOT gauge. Passengers could sit nine abreast in the cars.

There, can you tell that my almost five year old is interested in trains?

Ask me about standard time, sometime.

Followup by:

There have been postings on various newsgroups as to the origin of standard railroad gauge. A variety of them were forwarded to A.W. Worth, System Engineer- Standards of Canadian National Railways. What follows is a compilation/combination, somewhat abbreviated, of his responses.

Mr. Worth writes:

I am certainly not as knowledgeable as regards to early railroad history as, for example, George Way of AAR, but all this stuff is on record somewhere if you just know where to look.

Professor O'Hare, who perhaps significantly is a professor of Germanic languages and not of ancient Latin or Greek, has the right general idea, but he is at least 1000 years too late in ascribing standard gauge to the wheel spacing of "Roman war chariots". The Encyclopedia of Railways states that the standard gauge of 4'-8 1/2" goes back long before the time of the Romans. For example, at the time of Darius, king of the Persians (Daniel 6:31) the Persian empire had an excellent system of military roads, over which messengers could drive chariots at top speed. The countryside in Persia is rugged in places, with barren mountain ranges into the rocky flanks of which the military roads were cut. To keep the chariots from going off the side of the mountain while the horses were being lashed along at top speed, grooves were cut into the surface of the rock to hold the chariot wheels. The grooves are at the same centres as rails of standard gauge track are today.

Obviously the system did not start with Darius, but it is only in what at that time was the Persian Empire that the old grooved roads can still be found. It probably goes back at least to Ur of the Chaldees, but in the southern part of the valley of the Tigris and the Euphrates the ground is softer and would not hold the marks.

None of this is to suggest that messrs. Trevithick, Stephenson, etc., used design manuals from the Sumerian and Akkadian empires in deciding upon the 4'-8 1/2" gauge. It only illustrates the principle of parallel evolution, i.e., that 'everything that rises must converge'.

For further discussion of the origin of stone rutways in Sumerian times, see also 'The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Railways', Hamilton Ellis, AI Loco E, FRSA, Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1968, p. 9. It is interesting, for example, that the term 'turnout' is a literal translation of the same expression in ancient Greek.

The Romans did not use chariots for purposes of warfare. Chariots were pretty well technologically obsolete by the time of the Romans, because they had developed horses that were big enough to ride. If you go back 1000 years before that, though, to the late bronze age, the time of Troy, the horses were too small to take the weight of a man in armour, and chariots were the ultimate weapon of warfare. Chariots figure extensively in the Iliad, and in the Bible around the time of Solomon (2 Chronicles 18). The big horses seem to have come into Europe some time later, out of central Asia, with the Scythians. For war, after 600 BC or so, the ancient Greeks and the Romans used cavalry in the modern sense of the term. As anyone who has seen 'Ben Hur' knows, the Romans used chariots for 'fun events' in the Coliseum, but such events were more or less a cross between the Indianapolis 500 and a demolition derby and had no relation to war. The only tribes that still used them in Roman times were backward types like the Britons (see the statue of Queen Boadicea in London), perhaps because the British horses were still rather small. However, the use by the Britons of antique devices such as chariots was considered remarkable enough by the Romans that they made special mention of it.

For more on this subject, the reader might start with Caesar's "Gallic Wars". gopher://wiretap.spies.com:70/00/Library/Classic/Latin/Libellus/dbg1

For discussion in the changeover in military technology from use of chariots to use of mounted cavalry, see 'A History of Warfare', John Keegan, Key Porter Books, 1993, pp. 257-263, 'Macedon and the Culmination of Phalanx Warfare'.

References to "grooves worn in the pavement at Pompeii (and elsewhere) by the wheels of Roman chariots" is demonstrably incorrect. The Romans used chariots very little, and in fact their use in the downtown core of cities was generally illegal. The Romans believed that the primary purpose of streets in the daytime was for pedestrians. In that sense they antedated the idea of the modern pedestrian mall by 2000 years or so. It was only at night, when pedestrians and school children were off the street, that wheeled vehicles were permitted. Those vehicles were not chariots, but heavy four-wheeled utilitarian freight vehicles carrying foodstuffs and all manner of other merchandise for sale in the markets.

The streets being narrow and the lighting poor, grooves were deliberately cut in the pavement to guide the wheels of the heavy freight carts to avoid sideswipes and keep their wheels from striking the raised stones placed at intersections to serve as steppingstones for pedestrians. These grooves were at the same centres as standard gauge railroad rails. The steppingstones served a double purpose. Not only did they give pedestrians a means of crossing the street dryshod in wet weather, but they forced horse-drawn vehicles to come almost to a stop at intersections while the horses picked their feet over the stones. In that way, they served to accomplish what now is done with a 'stop' or 'yield' sign.

Contrary to popular opinion I have not been personally involved in construction and maintenance of tracks for chariots. Steam locomotives, yes, but not chariots.

To turn what has been said by the various correspondents on its head, it does not necessarily follow that something is necessarily wrong just because it has the wisdom of the ages behind it. Ur of the Chaldees had a system of counting by 12's, from which came many of our conventional numbers: 12 inches in a foot, 12 x 440 feet in a mile; 12 months in a year, 12 days of Christmas, and, not coincidentally, 12 Apostles. The system of counting by 10's, which seems to have supplanted counting by 12's before 1000 BC, made a mess of the original Urite system, and a certain French general who succeeded in spreading confusion from Gibraltar to Moscow 1795-1815 decided to finish the job; which is why now we have both the inch-pound and the metric systems to contend with.

The moral of it all seems to be that the Internet is a little like 'The National Inquirer'. It may be fun to read, but it isn't necessarily a reliable source.

A. W. Worth
(Arcturus Valerius Faber)

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