Saturday, January 1, 2011

Time Marches On... Or Does It?

Here's wishing a happy and productive 2011 to everyone!

Rather than just post my wishes for the new year, I thought I'd post a little bit of historical trivia that amused me.  As a preview -- it's interesting how the past can interact and impact the future in strange and unexpected ways!

My sister sells books as a side-job.  She combs garage sales, book sales, library sales, etc. looking for just the right books to sell online and make a buck or two per book.  From time to time, she finds books that she thinks will be of interest to me for a few pennies, so she buys them.  They stack up in her garage and eventually they make their way to my house.

One such book, Strange Universe by Bob Berman (2003), has proven to be a goldmine of interesting, accessible scientific facts.  The one I'm presenting below made me laugh out loud.  I hope you enjoy it!
"(T)he (Space) shuttle's booster rockets were designed to fit on railroad cars so that they could be transported from their manufacturer in Utah.  The rockets' width was therefore constrained by America's railroad gauge of four feet, eight and a half inches.  This odd measurement arose simply because it exactly duplicated the British rail gauge, which originated with English streetcars - employed because existing roads had ruts that far apart, made by horse-drawn carriages.  The roads had all been constructed with that axle-width so that the carriage wheels would fit within the ruts, which in turn traced their origins to the Romans, who built the first English roads.  Purportedly, the Romans had standardized this breadth for their chariots because the rumps of two horses could fit into it without their hooves kicking the wheels.  The point is that even our high-tech rocket designs are dictated by such ancient measurements, revolving around such basics as horse derrieres.

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