Horses as engineers

a row of Camargue ponies saddled and waiting for work seen from behind

The English language is littered with figures of speech reflecting a time when horsepower was central to civilization. I was delighted to find this connection between horses and engineers — a history lesson, perhaps.

For the sake of the story, I left it as it appeared. (No political commentary intended by me.) Thanks to Juergen from Ontario, Canada, via Mark Mottershead’s Horse Conscious Newsletter. Whether or not this is true, it seems plausible to me, and either way, I enjoyed it. I hope you do too.

“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’ behinds.

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 today’s horse’s asses in Washington want to control everything else.”

In closing I share a quote from the author of the earliest surviving work on classical dressage from ancient Greece. Xenophon wrote ‘On Horsemanship’ in 350 BC. His work is still studied today because he emphasizes kindness in training. Horses personify beauty and power; they fascinate. And sometimes they frustrate, too.

‘A horse is a thing of beauty. None will tire of looking as long as he displays himself in splendor.’

- Xenophon

How have horses touched your life? How do you see horses’ relevance to our lives today?


3 Responses to “Horses as engineers”
  1. Patty K says:

    Thank you Barbara!

    This post made me smile. It’s so interesting how decisions made at one point in time reverberate through the ages!

  2. Barbara says:

    Patty – Thanks for reading this post. I made my dad (a former engineer) read this because I thought he’d get a kick out of it.

    I’m so aware of the ways in which our language is still full of expressions that originated during times when horses were central to human civilization, when horses were transportation. I loved this piece because it shows another way in which our world has been shaped by horses – literally.

  3. Barbara says:

    Apparently this story has been questioned as netlore. I found this article assessing its accuracy and wanted to post it for any of you (like my father) who want to know. The quick answer: it may not be true literally, but in broad brush terms it is.

    I found the story great fun and hope you do too. Remember, I posted this on April 1st!

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