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Standard Deviations

Dana J. Parker

November, 2000 | Next time you chance to see a Space Shuttle launch, take a look at the booster rockets, one on either side of the main fuel tank. These are called solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. Their dimensions (in particular, their width) were determined by a standard set over 2,000 years ago.

How can this be? Well, Imperial Rome built the earliest roads in Europe and Great Britain, parts of which are still in use today. Some of the roads were intentionally grooved with ruts in difficult parts to guide Roman vehicles. The most common vehicles were two-wheeled chariots and four-wheeled carts drawn by teams and pairs of horses. To take advantage of the ruts and to avoid breaking the conveyances, the axles of the chariots and carts had to place the wheels at a fixed, standard width–about four feet, eight-and-a-half inches, or the width of two horses' behinds.

Time passed, and in the 16th century, tramways began to be developed in the British Isles to haul coal, ore, or stone. These were the precursors of the railroad, in which the "tracks" were flanged in order to keep iron wheels in the groove. By the early 19th century, the flanges migrated from the tracks to the tires, locomotives replaced horses and mules, and the "modern" railroad was born–with the rails still four feet, eight-and-a-half inches apart, wide enough to accommodate the two-by-two horse teams that the locomotive replaced.

Many railroads in North America were designed by English expatriates, who used this gauge and many others. Eventually, the transfer of freight from one rail car to another every time the gauge changed became too expensive and inefficient, and the four feet, eight-and-a-half-inch standard gauge was widely adopted in the U.S. by about 1886.

If you've ever traveled by highway coast-to-coast, you know that there are some big honking mountains out here in flyover country. You can't just drive over them, you have to drive through them–in tunnels. Trains go through tunnels too, even more than highways do. Usually, train tunnels are only slightly wider than the railroad track–and we all know how wide the tracks are by now, right?

The SRBs used on the Space Shuttle are manufactured by a company called Thiokol Propulsion Group in Utah. Utah is on the other side of those big honking mountains from Florida, where the space shuttle is launched, and SRBs have to be shipped by train, in sections. It's possible that the engineers would have liked to design the booster rockets to different dimensions, but they can't, because the standard was first set over 2,000 years ago, by the width of a horse's ass. So every time you encounter a new standard, you can expect that it may have been set by a horse's ass, or a committee of them.

After I first found the above story on the Internet, I did some further checking in various encyclopedias (DVD and Web) to verify its accuracy and to fill in some blanks. Then I tried a search using Google on the phrase "solid rocket boosters, or SRBs," then "train," and then "horse". There were 400 hits, and each one was nearly identical to the others. Someone posted the story (I've paraphrased it) sometime in 1999, and it has since been reproduced word-for-word hundreds of times. There's no telling who the original author was, although more than one columnist has published the same account, nearly verbatim, as his own words.

This says even more about standards than the original story. As recently as five years ago, this might have been an obscure, useless-but-interesting story with little publication. Because of the Internet, it has become widespread lore. As it turns out, it may or may not be entirely true; railroad tracks in the U.S. are indeed four feet, eight-and-a-half inches in gauge, but whether the Romans are ultimately responsible is in some doubt (some Roman roads had ruts in different gauges). It doesn't matter. The point is that standards are important. They can last for eons after their practicability. For this reason, if no other, should the standards-setters of today consider the ultimate ends of their decisions.

Speaking of staying power, ruts and grooves, and horses' asses, this issue of EMedia Magazine marks the eighth anniversary of the STANDARD DEVIATIONS column. It is also my last.

At the time I was invited to take this column over, in 1992, I was replacing Fred Meyer, the CEO of Meridian Data, where I had 12 months earlier been a lowly technical support engineer. It seemed quite a coup. Back then, the magazine was called CD-ROM Professional, it was bimonthly, and the editor was Nancy Herther. In those days, CD-ROM was the province of academics and librarians, and most CD-ROM titles were Big Ugly Databases (BUDs).

Over the years, I've written about all the different-colored books of compact disc, and then some. I've covered format variations, nonstandard formats, multimedia, evolving formats, forgotten formats, and proposed formats. I've outlasted two editors and every other writer and contributing editor, and I've seen the magazine go from an inch-thick, perfect-bound, subscription-only bimonthly to a slick, glossy, and impressively hip (though much thinner) monthly available on many newsstands.

But all good things must come to an end, and it is time for me to move on.

Dana J. Parker (danapark@ix.netcom.com) is a Denver, Colorado-based independent consultant and writer and regular columnist for Standard Deviations. She is also a contributing editor for EMedia, and co-author of CD-ROM Professional's CD-Recordable Handbook (Pemberton Press, 1996).

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