Why do US railroads lead to Imperial Rome?

As we go about out everyday business, features we often see frequently do not warrant a moments thought, let alone a second glance. One such taken for granted and unnoticed feature is the railroad or railway. We all see it, we know it is there, it was there yesterday and we know it will be there tomorrow. There seems nothing remarkable about a length of rail track, but have you ever paused for thought to wonder why these two parallel strips of steel are set a exact distance apart throughout the country?

The width of American railroad track is exactly 4 feet 8½ inches. This is the same for the UK and some other countries throughout the world. Much of the US rail system was built by ex-patriot Brits and at that moment in time UK rail technology was well advanced.

When George Stephenson built the first commercial railway engine “The Rocket” in 1829, one of the features he had to consider was the width of the track for both the engine and wagons to run on. At that time many horse coaches and carts were built on standard size jigs. The jigs had a wheel width of 4 feet 8½ inches based on the width of existing ruts in the road. Any coach or cart with an alternative wheel width would experience great difficulty traversing the roads. Early rail coaches were in fact a series of stage coaches or wagons strung end to end on a common frame.

The roads in England where built by the Romans and it was their chariots and carts that first caused the formation of the ruts. The Romans did not introduce the chariot to Britain, the ancient Brits, the Celts, already had them. There were two main Roman invasions of Britain, the first invasion failed when Roman legions were faced with war chariots driven by the Celts. Each chariot carried either an archer or spear thrower and drove at great speed through the Roman ranks. The chariots terrorised the Roman troops who had never before seen such modern machines of war. The Celts proved too strong for the Romans and the invasion failed. The Romans however were not slow on the uptake and by the time of their second invasion, they too had developed chariot technology but with the cutting edge of Roman military discipline and tactics.

The width of Roman chariot wheels was determined by the practicability of the width of two horses harnessed side by side to pull the chariots.

Perhaps there is some truth in the old saying, “All (rail) roads lead to Rome.

A uniformed Roman soldier

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