A Story That I Enjoy Telling

I’m presently watching a documentary about the development of the Chariot in Egypt. The question that keeps coming to mind is the size of the space shuttles solid rocket boosters. Now how can they be related? This story is from a British show called Connections that ran in the 80’s hosted by James Burke.

Roman roads covered most of Europe. They were built to transport soldiers, pack wagons and Chariots quickly from one place to another. The chariots were based on the Egyptian chariot and to make things simple they used similar axel and wheel sizes on all the wagons. There were quite a few roman roads and as time went on and Roman influence waned, others began to use them. The ruts worn into the roads were the distance between chariot wheels. This distance wasn’t arbitrary; it was the distance needed for two men to stand in the Chariot and was likely very close to the distance used by the Egyptians. The Egyptians may not have originally developed the Chariot but they used it extensively, and apparently improved it.

Getting back to Europe. It was easier to build wagons with wheels the same distance apart as the ruts that had been worn in the Roman roads; the same distance apart as the Chariot wheels. These ruts were persistent because many of the Roman roads were covered with fitted stones. If the axels were a different length the wheels didn’t last long so this axel length became the de facto standard. So when the decision was being made about railway gauge size why not use the de facto axel standard. Other gauges have been used for various reasons.

Fast forward to North America in the 1800’s. Trains were the best method of transportation across long distances. They were being used extensively in Europe. The emerging country at the time decided to build a rail system so they imported the workforce from Europe. They were used to building coaches that fit on the European system and they were designed to fit on the European rail gauge and that was based on the axel length that they had always used. You guessed it; the same size as a Chariot axel.

Now fast forward to the 1960’s and the design of the space shuttle. The Shuttle itself and the main tank are huge but the rocket boosters on the side are much smaller. I remember them being unsure as to how many they might need but they were solid rocket boosters and were going to be manufactured elsewhere and transported to the launch site. I remember this transport as being problematic but it came down to rail and the booster had to fit through tunnels and such. Those ‘tunnels and such’ were all made to a size based on what trains would fit through.

So the size of the Shuttle’s booster rockets were indirectly based on what would fit through the tunnels, which were based on the size of the trains, which were based on the track gauge, which was based on European axel standards, based on Roman roads, based on Chariot axels, based on Chariots designed about 3 to 5 thousand years ago. The Romans got the chariot idea from Egypt.

I’ve read various opinions about this both for and against, but it is just so compelling, reasonable and such a great story that I love telling it.

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