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Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The link between the Space Shuttle and the Roman Chariot

There is a well known argument that has circulated the internet that claims that the measurement for the width of the Roman chariot and the solid rocket boosters on the back of NASA's space shuttles are the same unusual measurement of 8 feet 4 1/2 inches (around 1.4 metres). What an intrigueing idea. It goes a little something like this:
  • 8 feet 4 1/2 inches is the standardised (internal) railway gauge in the USA

  • this is because the early railway tracks in the US were built and designed (at least in a substantial part) by British ex-pats, and, because that was the gauge the trains ran on

  • because that was the railway gauge in Britain where the early trains were built.

  • The trains in Britain were built to run on track this guage because railway lines followed old trolley cart/tram rail lines

  • The tram lines were this gauge because they were built along pathways horse darawn carriages and carts went along

  • The carriages and carts were the same measurement (from wheel to wheel) bcause they ran along ruts used by old wagons

  • The medieval wagons wore ruts this size because they were standardised so they could run along the old roads between main towns

  • Those old roads were mostly old Roman roads still in use

  • The Roman roads were standardised to that size to accomodate Roman war chariots

  • Roman chariots were standardised to this size because....

  • that was the size of two (Roman?) horses's rear ends!
The twist in the tale follows, that the solid rocket boosters of the space shuttle are assembled in Utah (I heard Canada in the first version I came across) and need to be the same size to fit onto a railway carriage and be transported by rail, onclueding through a few rail tunnels, to Florida. Hence the need for an unusal size. Dah daaah! Thus one of mankind's most advanced machines owes part of its design deminsions to an ancient machine, linking the Romans to space flight!


The story spread virally around the net, and s still readily in circulation, although I have not come across who first wrote it. It is often taken prima facie as fact. There are also a number of "counter articles" out there attacking the story, although the critiques vary a lot, and are sometimes, well simply not very interesting, effective and in the worst cases - not factual either.

Contrary to the story, it is true that railway gauge, not to mention carriage, cart and wagon widths have varied over time. Another obvious critiscism is that Roman chariots were not used for warfare, and surely if anything more carts carrying upplies, pack animals and infantry would have been on those Roman roads in Britain, with few if any Roman chariots, and certainly not war chariots. Horses too vary in size and larger and larger horse breeds than the Roman had have been developed through the Middle Ages and into the early Modern draft horse breeds, which are considerably larger than the more pony-like breeds from antiquity.

The NASA Technical Standards Program has produced a good critique in response to the widespread story, here: standards.nasa.gov/documents/RomanChariots.pdf


 Another thing not given much consideration is actual Roman roads. Sure, there are many in Britain but these have often had some changes over time. There are 4 main kinds of Roman roads:
Roman roads could be of four types:
i. "viae publicae" - public roads built at public expense (taxpayer's money or war booty)
ii. "viae militares" - military roads, built by the army at their own expense but would eventually fall into the first category of public roads.
iii. "actus" - minor roads, built and maintained by local councils
iv. "privatae" - yep, private roads built by private individuals at their own expense within their private property.
Most Roman roads were consierably wider than 8 feet 4 1/2 inches to allow two horse drawn carts to cross past each other in different directions, although this wasn't always possible in some kinds of terrain. About 9 f/3m was the most common road width.
 
It is interesting to note:
 
'The width of the road would be planned to allow horses and cariages along it or where it was too narrow such as on a mountain pass, regular side-stops would be planned to allow transit.The width of roads varied with the importance of the road: A width of 3m or over (9ft) was normal for roman roads to allow to carts to drive past each other in opposite directions although road widths as great as 7m (21ft) have been found. The edges of the road would be closed off by stones placed lengthways, which in city centres would act as the step for pavements. In cities such as Pompeii and Osita the roads have been found to be a relatively consistent 4m (12ft) in width for major roads, with a further 4 meters worth of pavements ie 2m either side). Minor roads in the city were anywhere between 2 and 4m (6-12ft).
It is interesting to note the ruts worn into Roman roads by the regular passage of carriages which were evidently built to standard width in the region of 1.3m (4 ft). It also seems that the ruts were not always worn by use but at times actually applied in instances such as steep or very tortuous mountain roads, rather like laying tram lines to render the roads more secure for the carts which might otherwise slip over the edge.'
 
 
Of course, like many stories, myths or legends, there is sometimes a bit of truth to the basis of them. A very good break down of what is truth, what is fiction, and what could be a bit of either or niether can be found here by Cecil Adams:
 
 
He also notes:
'I have heard tell of certain wheel ruts having a gauge of you-know-what at the gate to an old Roman fort called Housesteads on Hadrian's Wall in the north of England. Legend has it that George Stephenson based the gauge he used for his locomotives on the width of these ruts. Here's what Housesteads by James Crow (Batsford, London, 1995, pp. 33-34) has to say on the subject:
"The gauge between the ruts is very similar to that adopted by George Stephenson for the Stockton to Darlington railway in 1837 and a 'Wall myth' developed that he took this gauge from the newly excavated east gate. There is a common link, but it is more prosaic and the 'coincidence' is explained by the fact that the dimension common to both was that of a cart axle pulled by two horses in harness (about 1.4m or 4ft 8in). This determined both the Roman gauge and Stephenson's, which derived from the horsedrawn wagon ways of south Northumberland and County Durham coalfields."
So then, while there may not be a direct unbroken chain, nor will it have been the same in all cases, but there is a link there that seems to be far more than a quirk of history. Admitedly there are some errors in the original story, some facts that are simply wrong or misleading, and while railway track guage, not to mention wagons and carts have varied somewhat over time...there is nonetheless a link, not so much to the Roman chariot per se but a link between Roman horse drawn veichles, railways and the space shuttle.