The Worst Enemy of Progress: Standards? (3/5)

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Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

In the previous two articles on progress I might have made the impression that counter-intuitively, to achieve actual progress, older might be better. Is that so? Let’s look at an extreme example of this — a fairly well-known and often re-circulated story that “space shuttle booster’s width is two horse asses plus X”. (Or, here is a short version with pictures, in Tweet form, if you prefer Twitter.) Which, by extension, would mean that the newest addition to NASA’s fleet, the Space Launch System (SLS), is related to a 2000 year old roman horse’s ass, by the fact that it is using an extended version of the said Space Shuttle’s SRBs.

While the conclusion seems to be that this is an urban legend, and the Space Shuttle might not have any relation to a horse’s ass whatsoever, the basic story (bar the newer, Usenet-based addition with the Space Shuttle) is sound: the width of the railroad track is based on the dimensions of two horse rears, same as the chariot width in the old Rome. It is even affirmed in the same article that posits the story is not true:

[…]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.[…]
[from: Crow, James.
Housesteads. London: B.T. Batsford, 1995. ISBN 0–7134–6085–7 (pp. 33–34).]

The same article also says:

At the time of the Civil War, even though nearly all of the Confederacy’s railroad equipment had come from the North or from Britain (of the 470 locomotives built in the U.S. in 1860, for example, only 19 were manufactured in the South), 113 different railroad companies in the Confederacy operated on three different gauges of track. This lack of standardization was, as historian James McPherson points out, one of the many reasons the Union was able to finally vanquish the Confederacy militarily:

The Confederate government was never able to coax the fragmented, run-down, multi-gauged network of southern railroads into the same degree of efficiency exhibited by northern roads. This contrast illustrated another dimension of Union logistical superiority that helped the North eventually to prevail.
[from: McPherson, James.
Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988. ISBN 0–19–503863–0 (pp. 318–319, 514–515)]

So what does this tell us?

First of all, that the conclusion that

In other words, there was nothing inevitable about a railroad gauge supposedly traceable to the size of wheel ruts in Imperial Rome. Had the Civil War taken a different course, the eventual standard railroad gauge used throughout North America might well have been different than the current one.

is a circular argument: “The war was won partly because of the railroad gauge, but had the war taken a different course, the railroad gauge would have been different.” (If the outcome of the war wouldn’t have depended on the railroad gauge, that is.)

The second conclusion — the one that is more important for the sake of our series— is, in a collaborative environment, it is better to use well-established standards than not to use them: having a standard-sized railroad might have helped the South to win the war, by allowing the trains to pass through an unified railroad system instead of having to unload and re-load trains (or to physically move the whole wagons to a different undercarriage, as happens, for example, with trains transiting from Russia into western Europe and vice-versa).

And in modern times, there is even more to say for keeping of this particular standard: even though the width of the railroad track might not be entirely optimal for modern trains and some of the loads, there is an enormous amount of existing equipment based on the standard, which would ALL have to be changed.

Or in other words, there is no reason not to use a standard just because it is over two thousand years old — but there are a lot of reasons to re-use existing equipment. As for progress, the track width did not prevent us from developing high-speed trains like ICE3 and TGV that go at nothing like the speed of a roman horse carriage.

So no, contrary to arguments from some companies (hello Apple!), industry standards don’t hamper progress if the standards make sense. The latter is a very important distinction. The history of science would have been much more straightforward if it wasn’t. How so?… Come back later, and see for yourself, in the newest episode of … Progress wars!

Science Fiction, Tech, sarcasm, and philosophical ramblings about the Universe.

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