Railroad Tracks – A Historic Story of Standards  by Frances Blosser                                                

The historic facts of this story arrived in my email just as I was looking for an article for the ASQ drawing from an egyptian relief, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)1212 newsletter.  Be sure to read the final paragraph, though your understanding of the story will depend on the earlier content.  This is something to think about as we Quality Professionals live our professional lives “by the standards.”  You may have seen MOST of this before, but it should still garner a smile.  We should remember that humor is necessary for survival.

The next time you have to explain 5 Why or Root Cause Analysis to someone, try this example.  They may “get” it.

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

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

  1. Why was that gauge used? Because that’s the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the US railroads.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 that wheel spacing. 
  4. 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.
  5. Why?  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?

1) 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 that?”  you may be exactly right.

2) 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 saw a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there were two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank.  These were solid rocket boosters, or SRBs.  The SRBs were 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.

What’s controlling YOUR current processes?!!

FrancisFrances is an active member of ASQ Section 1212.  She attended Cleveland Institute of Technology and has over 25 years of experience in the quality field, as, among other positions, she’s acted as a Quality Engineer, a Manager, and an Auditor. Frances’s career portfolio includes Zebra Technologies, Thermo Fisher Scientific, and Cole-Palmer. She opened her own consulting firm, Blosser Consulting L.L.C., and seeking new opportunities. Of ASQ certification, Blosser says, “the certifications are priceless.”