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
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 widthabout 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 bornwith
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 themin tunnels. Trains go through
tunnels too, even more than highways do. Usually, train
tunnels are only slightly wider than the railroad trackand
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.