The myth that railroad tracks are based on the size of the ruts made by Roman chariots is a hoax.
But don’t feel bad, millions of people have been tricked, and there are thousands of people who spread the story as truth.
And you have to love the Internet, a piece of misinformation can get posted as a joke and take on a life of its own.
Here’s how it began: On February 9, 1994, Bill Innanen typed out a reasonable-sounding essay about the “exceedingly odd” railroad gauge of the United States and Britain, 4′ 8 1/2″ between tracks, and claimed that the measurement was based on the ruts left by Roman war chariots.
He sent it to the an email mailing list composed mostly of military R&D engineers like him. It was a group he expected would appreciate his wry point that military project specifications live long beyond their practical usefulness.
The story was taken as gospel and spread like electronic wildfire among engineers and bureaucrats and then the world. It got picked up by news sources and book authors. It mutated into new stories.
Meanwhile, Innanen sat by and watched, amused and powerless to stop the juggernaut he’d started.
When we asked Innanen about the story, he said,
“The post was never meant to be a serious historical thesis. Never did I imagine that sending this to some friends would cause it to become a bona fide urban legend. I personally sent the message out only once. From there it took on a life of its own. Every once in a while someone would unknowingly send me a copy of whatever version was being passed around. It was like a prodigal child returning home, carrying the evidence of his travels with him in additions and modifications. It’s always fun to be able to reply to the sender on these occasions saying, ‘Yes I’ve seen this one before. In fact, I wrote it!’ ”
What’s the truth about tracks? There were once dozens of track sizes used by railroads in both countries, but these eventually became standardized to the most popular gauge so that all trains could run on all tracks.
But why 4′ 8 1/2″? It turns out it isn’t so odd after all. Gauge is now officially measured from the inside of one track to the inside of the other, but it wasn’t always that way.
If you measure from the outside to the outside, you’ll find that it equals just about 5 feet, not an odd measurement at all.