Saturday, March 29, 2008

"Because that's the way we've always done it!"

I first came across this story from an engineering colleague of mine, Kyle Smith. He said he got it from Howard Winsett, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. I have no idea if it's true, but it's a great story to help people see the need to challenge the conventional wisdom. Or silly HR policies.

Does the expression, "We've always done it that way!" ring any bells? The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That is an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that is the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built 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 is 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 used for building wagons, which used the same 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 (and England) for their legions. The 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 (or by) Imperial Rome, they all had the same wheel spacing. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot.

Specifications and bureaucracies live forever. So the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horses butt came up with it, you may be exactly right. This is because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war-horses.

Now, the twist to the story...

There is an interesting extension to the story about railroad gauges and horses' behinds. When we see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. "Thiokol" makes the SRBs at their factory at Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs might 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. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the
railroad track is about as wide as two horses' behinds. So, a major 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.


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Anonymous said...

Great story and clearly one which demonstrates that "paradigms" can be obstacles to progress. I have always hated the "because that's the way we've always done it" rationale and often seek good examples, like your story, as to exactly why such rationale is flawed!

Thanks Dan,

Anonymous said...

Now that post makes you think. By asking the question "why?" and working your way back realistically through the causes, you are able to depict how the consequences of accepting common standards can stay with us, and limit potential, for a long time.

You've calculated the value of "why". Very cool concept...

Dan McCarthy said...

Ankur, Nina, Patrick -
Thanks for your comments. The story is a little long, but the engineers and scientists sure liked it.

Anonymous said...

Hey Dan,
I added you to my blogroll as well....hope it helps!!


Sean T said...

I first heard this story from Paul Harvey (The Rest of the Story). I have quoted it many times and continue to do so. Unfortunately, one day I decided to check it out on Snopes. It seems to have lost it's impact however, as I have to admit it is not true.

Dan McCarthy said...

Sean -
I love that Snopes! But it's still a good story, urban legand as it may be.