Here's a bit of train lore that may help you keep your life on the rails.
Though few people realize it, the standard width of train tracks around the world owes its origin to ancient chariots. According to legend, rail lines are precisely four feet, 8 1 /2 inches wide, because that was the uniform width of British wagons. British wagons were that width because the country's roads were built by the Romans, whose chariots were always four feet, 8 1 /2 inches wide. By making wagons with that same measurement, their wheels would fit into the ruts carved by the Roman chariots, making it easier to travel.
But the Encyclopedia of Railways says the standard size of rail tracks actually goes back to the time of Darius, the king of Persia (ancient Iran) who lived long before the Romans and is mentioned in Daniel 6:23. Since the king's military roads often passed along steep mountains, grooves were cut into those corridors to hold the chariot wheels and keep the vehicles from flying over the edge when horses were driven at top speed. Those grooves were precisely four-feet, 8 1 /2 inches wide, and can still be found today.
By the time of the Romans, chariots were usually banned from cities that were designed mostly for pedestrians. At night, though, lumbering four-wheeled freight wagons were allowed in to carry goods to market. Since the streets were narrow and poorly lit, grooves were cut in the pavement to guide the big carts and stop them from hitting each other or the raised stones that marked most intersections. Again, those grooves were the same width as today's train tracks. [etc.]
Way back when rogueclassicism was young (in blog years), we posted another example of this and referred readers to a post by amicus noster Al Kriman on the Classics list on October 23, 1999. Since the old archives of the Classics list are only available via the Wayback Machine, I'll reproduce AK's post here in the interests of having some accurate info readily available for folks who try to confirm or refute this canard in the future ... I include AK's footnotes and endnotes, but many of them are now inaccessible (or at least not easily accessible):
Mark Joseph reposts a perennial [], suspecting that its premise is an urban legend
> Thus, we have the answer to the original question. The United States
> standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the
> original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot.
Short answer: almost certainly false, but interesting details along the way to knowing so.
Very long answer:
This made its first appearance on the list three years ago. After a number of appearances in October and December that year, it reappeared in December 1997. It was reported to have appeared elsewhere at least as early as June 1996. Starting at [], I've listed in chronological order the archive URL's for almost all the relevant postings. I've given explicit numbers for those that I cite; a space indicates a new introduction of the topic. Lettered footnotes preceed the numbered endnotes. (My next posting will have a complete ap. crit.)
It is well-known that in the early days of railroads in North America, there was a profusion of different track gauges, and that after the Civil War there began to be substantial standardization. (George Westinghouse, inventor of the air brake, was a major proponent of standardization.)
Christopher Robbins wrote []:
> In fact, track gauges around the world have varied from less than 2' to as
> much as 7', and 5' 6" track gauges are still in use. Narrow gauges are
> typical in the early stages of railroading and in underdeveloped countries
> because they are generally less costly to construct and equip. And even
> today roughly 40% of the world's railroads do not use the so called
> standard gauge.
> In the early years, many North American lines were built with gauges that
> were both wider and narrower than the so called standard gauge. No doubt
> that the importation of English locomotives was an influence on the use of
> the standard gauge for the lines which planned to use those locomotives.
> But it is not at all certain that this alone would have been sufficient for
> the standard gauge to become standard once US industrial capacity began to
> flourish in the second half of the 19th c. Indeed, there was quite a
> controversy over this, and as best I recall one of the various influences
> which led to the increased adopotion of the standard gauge was the money
> and political influence of George M. Pullman (whose big, heavy luxury cars
> introduced in the mid-1860's required a wider gauge than in fact was more
> the norm at the time). Were it not for ad hoc interventions such as this,
> it would be hard to guess what gauge would be called "standard" in the U.S.
See [[a]] for gauges between 381mm (1'3") and 1676mm (5'6") in use around the world. See also George Pesely [].
Thus, if a Roman standard exerted an influence, it could not be in the way described in the xeroxlore -- by affected initial choices in a way that was difficult to overcome later. The most that might be argued consistently with the actual variety of gauges is that *some* of the players initially chose a Roman gauge. (No historical evidence for such a choice was adduced in any of the threads.) Given the various political and business considerations involved, it does not appear that the Roman legacy could have been decisive in the choice between wide and narrow gauges.
On the other hand, if major factors (e.g., Pullman, as suggested by CR) favored a range of gauges, then the particular gauge chosen might have been subject to weaker influences. One could then argue that, given the chance, the Roman gauge prevailed over other similar gauges. This argument can only be pressed, however, if there really was a rather precise Roman gauge. If there was only a loosely defined Roman gauge between, say, 5'5" and 5'11", it is hard to make any credible claim about its influence.
It turns out that there _was_ a rather precise standard, and there was a very old standard in Northern England (4'8") that eventually "won out." (An extra half inch was added to reduce friction against the flanges.) This was the gauge used by Robert Stevenson, identical to the wheelbase of coal carts drawn by horses (and by men, inside the mines). This may have been traditional, but since the coal lines were (I think) of recent vintage, they did not reflect technology caught in an ancient rut. It is claimed that the 4'8" was a compromise found appropriate over time at the collieries. The information in this paragraph is based on postings in news:alt.folklore.urban by Richard Bowles [[b]]. This appears to be the source of the lengthy information that Bob Rust was reluctant to post to the list []. (Related information further below.)
What this does imply, however, is that the great initial variety of North American gauges was ultimately irrelevant. When a gauge was adopted, it was in fact the one that had become fairly standard in the UK, France, and Germany. This is not really too surprising, since in that era, Britain was the industrial superpower. This need not reflect a disadvantageous compromise of N. American interests. Ultimately, the advantage of one standard over no standard is much greater than the slight relative advantages of different possible standards over each other, so once a particular standard gains some advantage, it tends to snowball. (E.g., MS-DOS over CP/M, Metcalfe's Law [[c]].)
The point above must be emphasized, because the variety of early US and Canadian gauges is often regarded as telling against the Roman-standard hypothesis (e.g., see the second missive from the Stumpers list, []). Although the Roman-origin story be false, this is not evidence against it.
>>From the same source, [[b]], it also appears that earlier North American gauges were generally wider than the 5'8.5" standard, so perhaps Pullman's influence did not count for as much as CR suggests.
So US standards are ultimately derived from a UK standard. But what does this have to do with antiquity? In fact, apparently not too much. Here's what Sue Watkins found []:
> From: Jacques Gerber (3mm Society)
> Colliery and mine plateways developed in Central Europe from the
> Sixteenth Century onwards, the first known in Britain (1604)
> having a 3'9" guage.
> This eventually developed into the Eighteenth Century network of
> wooden railways and wagonways in the North East of England all with
> guages of about 4-5' apart.
> The characteristic "Chaldron" wagon was initially hauled by horse
> power on these lines from mine to canal or river, and its guage was
> adopted by the first line built by George Stepehenson that was entirely
[Robert's brother, I think -- AMK]
> worked by steam power (stationary rope-haulage engines on the inclines
> and locomotives on the flatter bits). The Hetton Colliery Railway was 8
> miles long and built to the 4'81/2" or "Stephenson" guage.
> In 1820, John Birkenshaw patented the development of malleable iron
> rails 18 foot long of "bullhead" cross-section, giving a stable track
> for heavier locos and a smoother ride for passengers on the Stephenson
> guage. By 1860, an act of parliament decreed that all new British railways
> had to be of Stephenson guage.
> [the compatition at the time was the Brunels broad guage]
So it doesn't look promising for a Roman origin, but was there an ancient standard?
As Mark Snegg [], RMBragg [], Carin Green [] and later others noted, the age of the chariot as an efficient weapon of war had long passed by Roman Imperial times, and Romans used chariots primarily in races (there's further relevant information in the OCD under "transport, wheeled"). Be it understood that we're really talking about carts. Be it further understood that we're talking oxen probably more often than horses, whose hindquarters have a different gauge than horses'.
There is extensive, but not universal, evidence of deep ruts: Graham Shaw [] and Edwin Menes [] (personal observations at Pompeii), Steven Willett [], Bill Thayer [] and probably others (you could look it up). Pompeii is important because the argument is often brought around to Roman intercity roads and away from streets, and the claim is made that the Romans maintained smooth roads, the ruts only appearing late (this is a bit much, ask me). Peter Green wondered whether there was not in fact a Greek precursor []. Jim Roy [] posted
> Yanis Pikoulas' recent book (in Greek) on roads and forts in
> Corinthia and the Argolid shows, from surviving ruts, that there was
> a standard gauge of c. 1.4 metres. He argues that it was imposed by
> the Spartans in the second half of the sixth century BC.
4'8" = 142 cm.
(Note that the Greeks built rutways rather than roads.)
(I should probably add that Tom Simms [], by some rather confident analysis of photographs of King Tut's hunting chariot, claimed to obtain 4'9".)
(Bob) Metcalfe's Law, so dubbed by George Gilder in his book _Telecosm_, is:
The value of a network can be measured
by the square of the number of users.
It's the conclusion of an argument made by BM promoting computer networking standards in 1980, and it explains a kind of natural monopoly based not on superiority of product but on the instability of polygopoly (not my term). Railroads are networks too. By a slight adjustment, the same rule explains why Betamax lost.
[] Diane Cooper
gopher://220.127.116.11/0R458769-461635-/public/classics/classics.log9610b [] George Pesely
gopher://18.104.22.168/0R467589-469910-/public/classics/classics.log9610b gopher://22.214.171.124/0R4809-6524-/public/classics/classics.log9610c [] Bob Rust
gopher://126.96.36.199/0R196813-198460-/public/classics/classics.log9610c [] Graham Shaw
gopher://188.8.131.52/0R294332-296738-/public/classics/classics.log9610c [] Peter Green
[] Jim Roy
gopher://184.108.40.206/0R146265-149119-/public/classics/classics.log9610e gopher://220.127.116.11/0R150404-153281-/public/classics/classics.log9610e [] Edwin Menes
gopher://18.104.22.168/0R157822-159048-/public/classics/classics.log9610e [] Steven Willett
gopher://22.214.171.124/0R610795-613802-/public/classics/classics.log9612a [] Mark Snegg
gopher://126.96.36.199/0R622455-624426-/public/classics/classics.log9612a [] Bill Thayer
[] Tom Simms via Holly Oyster
gopher://188.8.131.52/0R299864-306020-/public/classics/classics.log9612c [] RMBragg@aol.com
gopher://184.108.40.206/0R443484-446657-/public/classics/classics.log9712b gopher://220.127.116.11/0R448525-450296-/public/classics/classics.log9712b [] Gifford Combs via David Wigtil
gopher://18.104.22.168/0R450296-453113-/public/classics/classics.log9712b [] Christopher Robbins
gopher://22.214.171.124/0R455809-462146-/public/classics/classics.log9712b [] A bunch together:
gopher://126.96.36.199/0R465130-477921-/public/classics/classics.log9712b [] Sue Watkins, as herself and channeling Jacques Gerber gopher://188.8.131.52/0R477921-481681-/public/classics/classics.log9712b
[] Mark Jacob