Posted by: JC Gatlin | February 17, 2012

A History Lesson about Horses’ Rears (from Myers Barnes)

I’m reposting an article written by the new home sales guru Myers Barnes. In this story he illustrates the importance of asking “why?” It’s such a simple word, but it makes you hit the pause button and think. Most times, we do things the way we’ve always done it that way because we don’t think about it. Asking why forces you to think about it. Thanks for the great story, Myers!


A History Lesson about Horses’ Rears

by Myers Barnes Published March 12, 2007

The US standard railroad gauge, which is the distance between the rails, is 4 feet, 8.5 inches, which is an odd number. Why was that gauge used?

Because that’s the way they built railroads in England and English expatriates built those we have in America. Why did the English build them like that?

Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways and that’s the gauge they used. Why did “they” use that gauge then?

Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing. And why did wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing?
Because if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England because that’s the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So, who built those old roads that had the wheel ruts? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe and England for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And what about the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in wheel spacing. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot, which was built just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.

Now, to update the story, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank on a space shuttle. These are solid rocket boosters (SRBs). The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory at Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit wider, but the SRBs have to be shipped by train from the factory to Cape Canaveral and the empty, washed ones returned by railcar to Thiokol’s Utah facilities. The railroad line from the factory runs through a tunnel in the mountains so the SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you know, is about as wide as two horses’ behinds.

So, a major space shuttle design feature on the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s rear. Although there have been opportunities along the way to gradually make changes, bureaucracies live forever and so do out-dated ideas.

The next time you need to approach a problem from a different angle, use the try-angle. Try something new. Break the mode of responding the same way just because it’s always been done that way. Apply good old horse sense instead of the other part of its anatomy.

Visit Myers Barnes’ blog at

© February 2012 Homebuilding Partners, Inc.   twitter-logo


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