The Size of a Horse’s Behind

by | Oct 16, 2022 | Change |

horse's behind

Whenever we work on restoring our property, I am always struck by how often we make decisions based on what was here before. Fences, gates, buildings, even if they are delapidated influence our thinking about what we can put there. Design decisions and structures someone decades or hundred years ago are influencing us today.

While this is happening at a small scale in our little corner of the world, it also happens in countless other aspects of life too. Take for instance space travel – the size of the booster rockets on the original space shuttle was determined by the size of the rear end of Roman horses.

The story goes like this. The standard distance between the rails of US railroad track is 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches. Why? Because that is how railroads were built in England. And the English built their railroads at that distance apart because railway lines were built by the people who built tramways. The tramway lines were built using the jigs and tools which were used previously to build wagon wheels. And 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches was wheel spacing used for wagons.

Wagons used this wheel spacing because it was the most durable spacing. Any other spacing caused wagons to regularly break due to the wheel ruts in the roads. The ruts were made by made by Roman war chariots and since the Roman Empire was the first to build long distance roads in Europe, these roads have been used ever since. The war chariots were all made with the same wheel spacing. Therefore the ruts in the roads were all this spacing. And the Roman war chariots were made to be just wide enough for the back ends of two war horses.

So the size of the back end of a Roman war horse determined the size of railway track thousands of yeards later. And the size of the railway track determined the size of the tunnels engineers created through hills and mountains. And the size of the railway tunnels in the US determined the size of the booster rockets on the space shuttle because the boosters were made in Utah and space shuttle launch pad was in Florida.

Perhaps take some time this week to unpack with your team some of history of the things you are trying to change – it may go back further than you imagined or lead to the size of a horse’s behind!

Photo by Silje Midtgård

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