Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on a camping trip. After a good meal and a bottle of wine, they lay down for the night and went to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend. “Watson, look up and tell me what you see.” Watson replied, “I see millions and millions of stars.” ” What does that tell you?” Holmes asked.
Watson pondered for a minute. “Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all-powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Why, what does it tell you?”
Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke. “Watson, you idiot. Someone has stolen our tent.”
Dimensions in Time – Revisited
[Editor’s Note: Several readers wrote in questioning whether the “Dimensions in Time” humor piece in the January issue was truth or “urban myth.” Dave Parta went one step further and forwarded a letter that Trains magazine answered in its March 2000 issue. The following is reprinted with permission from Trains magazine.]
There is a story making the rounds of the Internet that says standard gauge relates to the width of the wheel ruts left by Roman chariots. The predecessors of early English railways ran in these ruts, or so the story goes, and that Roman wheel spacing remains to this day. It makes for a nice tale, but the truth is not nearly as simple.
The pioneering railroad builders didn’t give much thought to interchanging rolling stock. They built their railroads according to their own ideas of what gauge would work best. For example, the Surrey Iron Railway, the first railway built under an act of Parliament, had a gauge of 4 feet, while the Great Western Railway operated over a very broad 7 feet, 1/4 inch gauge. In 1825, George Stephenson-one of the principal inventors of the steam locomotive-selected a 4 feet, 8 inch (the extra half-inch was added later) “narrow” gauge for his railway. Many other companies followed suit.
The debate over which gauge was best grew so heated that a Royal Commission was appointed to sort out the mess. The commission received testimony from 48 witnesses. Thirty-five were in favor of Stephenson’s “narrow” gauge, and the commission eventually agreed-it was, apart from anything else, more economical to narrow a broad-gauge railroad than to widen the bridges, cuts, fills and tunnels of narrow-gauge lines. As of 1846, all new railway construction had to conform to the new standard of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches, and the existing broad-gauge railways had to add a middle track to accommodate standard-gauge rolling stock.
Completely failing to learn from England’s “gauge wars,” early U.S. and Canadian railroads used a wide variety of track widths. The Erie Railroad, for example, was built with a 6 foot gauge. The English standard gauge emerged as the front runner when Abraham Lincoln specified it as the gauge to be used for the transcontinental railroad.
Why did Stephenson settle on 4 feet, 8 inches? The details may never be known, but roughly the same gauge was in use long before Stephenson’s time as fixed guideways for horse-drawn mining wagons in the north of England. It is just a handy width for a horse-drawn cart, Roman or otherwise. Stephenson may well have concentrated on making a mechanical replacement for those mining horses, without fiddling with the width of the guideway.
Un-Metric Rail Gauge
You nicely derived the U.S. standard 4 foot 8 1/2 inch distance between rails from the distance between horses in Roman War chariots. You must be aware that the whole of Europe also uses the same gauge. No wonder Rome is in Europe.
However, one of the largest railroad networks in the world-including India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka-uses different standards: 5 feet 6 inches, called the broad gauge, and 1 meter, called the meter gauge. Now they are going un-metric! Most of the meter gauges have been converted to the broad gauge.
I wonder if the British, who established the broad gauge in India, found the Indian horses larger.