Glad you asked. The real answer involves horses. Stay with me, okay? After the Civil War, the Congress declared that all new railroad tracks had to be a standard 4-foot, 8 and one half -inches. Before that time there were not so many rail roads and the track sizes were all different sizes all over the place, whatever each rail company wanted, it did without measure of any other rail company.
Standardizing is of course a good idea, but why the odd number? If you can pick any size why pick 4 foot 8 and a half inches?
For a start – because the English made them that way, and English ex-patriots built our railroads. Fine, but why did the English build track that size? Well… Because the Romans did, not rail track, of course, but they did build roads, and the wheels on their chariots cut ruts into the stone roadway and if your cart wasn’t that size you had a really rough ride going in and out of the ruts. This forced everyone after them to make wagons the same size. Four feet, eight and a half inches between wheels- because in ancient Rome that was the size of their war wagon wheels and that was determined because it was the width of the back end of two war horses harnessed together. Someone way back then had decided that the wagon should not be any wider than the horses so they could go through the same openings. Time has a way of carrying its’ ideas forward so … it gets better.
You know those huge booster rockets on the space shuttle? Engineers wanted to make them fatter, but they couldn’t because they had to be shipped by train and had to fit through a tunnel. Tunnels are only slightly wider than rail cars that run on the tracks, you know 4 foot 8 and a half inches, which means this: engineers had to design a sophisticated rocket capable of thrusting a shuttle and people into orbit to go to the moon…but they also had to honor how wide a horse’s rear is, times two, because they shipped parts of the shuttle by rail cars which had to go through tunnels and gateways. Rail cars are, however, wider than 4 foot 8 one half inches; some can carry 12 foot wide cargo on special carriers, but is generally limited to 10 foot wide carriers. This limits the size of rail cargo in many areas and limited the size of the booster rockets. Keep in mind that many of today’s horses are much larger than the ancient Roman version and if they had them would we would have had bigger boosters? Not really the point of this story.
Recipes are ruts too!
When I was a child my mother used an old recipe handed down to her from her mother. It was for a beef roast. After doing all of the sauce and meat prep, the final instruction was to cut 2 inches off the rounded end of the roast before setting in a pan and placing in the oven. Every time, for many years, as my mother made a roast she would dutifully follow these instructions. One year my grandmother, (my mother’s mother) came to visit. Mom decided to make the traditional roast and just offhandedly my mom asked her why she had to cut off two perfectly good inches of the roast before inserting into the oven. Time has a way of carrying things forward-remember? Well, Grandma had a really good laugh….. “Dear,” she said, “I was cooking on a small wood stove and if I didn’t cut 2 inches off the end I couldn’t get the door closed. I wrote the instructions so I wouldn’t forget at the last minute!”
Don’t you wonder how much of our daily life is run in a rut?
I heard once that a rut is a grave with both ends knocked out, but sometimes it is good to have something to keep you on track as well and often it leads to someplace or some way that is worthy of going. Ruts are not all bad but I can’t help think that without some ruts we missed a lot of roast and we could have boosted more cargo to the moon, too!
I got into a rut of not posting often and now I think I’m out of that groove!
Thanks for reading on my blog.