Eight little known historical facts….

History is the knowledge of the human past that, once discovered, is investigated and documented. Most of us know about the world wars, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Bernie Madoff.

There are some historical facts, however, and the gadgets and inventions pursuant to them, that are more obscure than the discovery of electricity, the invention of the telephone, or the perpetration of one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in modern times.

Here are a few for you, but keep in mind there is some disagreement, as always, to the absolute accuracy of the facts, except for the last one.  It is posted for your pleasure and enjoyment:

The  US  standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd number.

Why was that gauge used? Because that’s the way they built them in England, and English expatriates designed the  US  railroads.

Why did the English build them 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 that they had used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, 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’s the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial  Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (including  England ) for their legions. Those roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had 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. Bureaucracies live forever.

So the next time you are handed a specification/procedure/process and wonder ‘What horse’s ass 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. (Two horses’ asses.)

Now, the twist to the story:

When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in  Utah

The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to 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 railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses’ asses.

So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s ass. And you thought being a horse’s ass wasn’t important? Ancient horse’s asses control almost everything… and the CURRENT horse’s asses in Washington are controlling everything else

This was sent to me via email without attribution.  I have since learned that at least parts of it may be attributed to one James Burke.  If this is the case we thank him for doing such a great job.

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Posted by on March 10, 2011. Filed under CRITTER TALK. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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25 Responses to Eight little known historical facts….

  1. Mauigirl

    August 3, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    This is brilliant! Fascinating info and great twist at the end!

    • MadMike

      August 3, 2010 at 2:23 pm

      Glad you liked it Mauigirl 🙂

  2. Krell

    August 3, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    I [email protected]#$%$ love this post! Where did you come up with this, Mike?

    • MadMike

      August 3, 2010 at 2:24 pm

      I knew you would like this Krell. It is a collaboration between me and a friend of mine which reminds me I need to attribute him.

  3. Mother Hen

    August 3, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    LOL! I love the visual horse ass remainder every few photos! I’m glad someone wrote about butts before the urge hit me again.

  4. The Lawyer

    August 3, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    Great stuff.

  5. fourdinners

    August 3, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    It’s sheeps asses in Yorkshire

  6. Barbara Russo

    August 3, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    Thanks for the history lesson, Mike. Very, very interesting:)

  7. Tim Waters

    August 3, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    I actually knew most of that, I hung in till the end and was surprised by the Missile boosters. Good job!

  8. Harrison Goldsmith

    October 10, 2010 at 2:31 am


  9. Robert Douglas

    March 10, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Good one Mike,
    but didn’t you or Holte post this last year?

    I’m not absolutely sure, and I wouldn’t want to appear as a complete horse’s ass.

    • disappointed

      May 30, 2011 at 4:11 am

      While Snopes goes to great lengths to cite several sources to refute the claim, there is also a fair amount of speculation involved, and in their first paragraph, they even admit that it would be better labelled, “True, but for trivial and unremarkable reasons.”

      But all that aside, citing Snopes is not a suitable argument for confirming that someone is either right or wrong. More than once, Snopes has been known to change their story upon uncovering more information. They are no more infallible than anyone else in the world.

  10. newageluddite

    March 31, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Oh! I get it now, Mike. This is really a metaphor for how established religions develop their traditions by basing them on mythical but plausible(to them)stories borrowed from unattributed sources, then developing them over the years until they form a dogma that lives on in a rigid, unchanging form; much as your rendition is virtually identical to the internet story Snopes quoted, which was making its rounds at least 11 years ago. And, just as the Russian Orthodox Church differs from the Roman Catholic Church, Russian Gauge is wider, at 4’11&5/6″; while the more introspective Japanese have a smaller primary gauge of 42″.

  11. disappointed

    May 30, 2011 at 3:41 am

    Mike, Mike, Mike – and here I was expecting eight individual and little-known facts. I first heard this story (with the exception of the rocket booster segment) over 30 years ago – in school, of all places. To think they actually used to teach kids things in school… but then people don’t need to know anything anymore – in fact some of the most successful politicians are complete idiots.

    Then I saw the story circulating via faxes (with the rocket booster part) – back before everyone started e-mailing these stories to everyone they knew – back in 1993. So really, you’ve just retold an old story, and added your personal opinion of Republicans. While I won’t dispute that there are a lot of Republicans who are horse’s asses, you also can’t deny that there are just as many Democrats who are just as equine as their Republican counterparts. It’s been all of those asses in Washington – regardless of their party affiliation – who have been digging America into awful deep ruts for decades.

    Now, I’m not going to be a horse’s ass like one of the other commenters, who (repeatedly) accused you of plagiarism (even though they obviously don’t know how to spell it), since I don’t know for a fact that you have ever actually read James Burke’s book. But as a former part of law enforcement, and now especially as a teacher, you really do have an obligation to your readers to either cite a source for your information, or at the very least admit that you don’t know where it originated. I mean, I have notes in my papers that I forgot to write an author on, so even though I know they came from a credible source, I have no recollection of what that source may have been.

    • A Michael J. Scott

      June 7, 2011 at 3:44 pm

      Thanks for the courtesy of your comment “disappointed.” I have added the suspected attribution to the end of this post. The rude commenter was classified as spam and removed. The original post was sent as an attachment via email and the sender said it was sent to him. No one had a clue as to the source. Under almost all circumstances I indicate this in posts, but simply forgot to do so here. Because I hadn’t revisited this particular story in months I had no idea I had a spammer and even less of an idea that someone actually knew the source. Thanks again for not being a “horse’s ass” about this. It was an oversight.

  12. Daniel Bratchell

    June 7, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Isambard Kingdom Brunel (who built the first propeller-driven transatlantic steamship) also built the first major railway in Britain, the Great Western. He used a wider gauge than the other railways because they were more comfortable for passengers but it was impossible to link with other railways so they were reduced to fit. There are still a few bits of track in situ around the place.

    If his wide gauge had been accepted America would have been able to build super rockets.

  13. Uncle B

    July 25, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    ‘Crappier’ toilets, taking a full 16 gallons of fresh drinking water are another example of why America suffers! Imagine, all the Humanure America produces, bio-digested into Methane fuel, as Oslo Norway does to fuel its city buses! imagine, all that top-soil building fertilizer from the sludge! Great fields of hemp, making fiber for paper, clothing, even yielding hemp oil for diesel fuel! Hemp-board for construction, and a new crop even up to three times a year in some locations!
    America is stuck, very deep in the rut created by the ‘Cheap Oil Era’ that provided the ‘Golden Age’ we are now exiting. China explodes with growth, new advances, even LFTR reactor technologies, while America wallows in its former glories, rests firmly on its laurels, and loses badly on the new economic battlefield of the world to Asians!
    Time to examine, re-engineer, re-write the texts,time to make astounding paradigm shifts, already felt by many Americans.

  14. Cage

    August 29, 2011 at 11:55 am

    This was VERY well done. Congrats. You know. It’s even funnier today with Obama and Democrats mis-leading the way… Thanks! – From an over-educated southern atheist who finds only hypocritical socialist Democrat bigots more repulsive that bombastic predjudiced Republican zealots.

  15. dave

    September 22, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    I call b.s. The shuttle’s SRBs were nearly 13 feet in diameter.

    “The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses’ asses.”

    This is phrased badly. One track = two H.A. units. One track going one way, another going the other, so there’s four H.A. units. Then there’s space in between the tracks (about 15-20 feet?) Then the space to the sides. My guess is that tunnel is really a good 30 or 40 feet wide. So knock it off with this idiotic story.

    • jenny40

      September 22, 2011 at 10:38 pm

      Hey Dave why in the world do you think the publishers of this site would care about you? Well, they do I suspect, so try to read the whole thing and not attack based on one calculation. Thanks pal.

    • Daniel Bratchell

      September 23, 2011 at 5:37 am

      It gives me great pleasure , as an Englisman using an old cricket expression, to hit your comment for six.

      First of all the SRBs are a fraction over 12 feet not nearly thirteen. Secondly, if the tunnel was constructed by English (or Irish)expatriates, the distance between the tracks would have been no more than six feet, likewise the distance between the track and the side of the tunnel. Thirdly have you considered that the tunnel has one track only? That means that 4ft 8ins + 6 + 6 = 16ft 8 ins. Also if the tunnel has any curves in it, it would have to be more than 12.17ft wide.

      I suggest you do a little more research before slagging off the publisher.

  16. James Smith

    October 13, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    A cute story that has been circulating on the internet for years. Probably long before that, too. The only problem is, it isn’t true. It’s still a cute story, though. I especially like the part about horse’s asses still controlling the government projects. That must is certainly accurate.