Did you hear about the Roman chariot and the railroad train? Listen up. Today, on Engineering Works!
There’s a nifty story about how the gauge of modern railroad tracks is the width it is because of the distance between the wheels on ancient Roman chariots.
As the story goes, Roman chariots made deep ruts in the roads in Britain, where modern trains were invented. To use the rutted old Roman roads, wagons were built with the same wheel spacing as chariots. The first train cars were essentially wagons pulled by locomotives instead of horses, so the rails were spaced to fit wagons that fit ruts made by Roman chariots. When British engineers sent the first locomotives to the United States, those wheels kept the same spacing and so have railroads ever since. Good story. But it’s not true.
The real story is almost as good.
British engineer George Stephenson built the first steam locomotives in Britain. He’d worked in coal mines before he built locomotives and railroads. In those days, mines often had horse-drawn railroads to carry the coal out of the mine tunnels. The rails at different mines often had different spacings. Some were narrow. Others were wide. At Stephenson’s mines, they were about four-feet, eight inches, so that’s what he spaced the rails for his first railroad. He built lots of railroads in Britain, so that width caught on. The rest is history.
We’re at the end of our line for today. See you next time.
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Start the discussion: A lot of our technology hasn’t been around long enough to collect interesting stories about it. Railroads have. What other technologies have interesting history connected to them? Let us know.