Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In grip of the past

A few months ago I came across an interesting email forward. Without the illustrations to accompany, it looks like this -

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet 8.5 inches. That's an rather odd dimension for such a mundane task as guiding a rolling vehicle. Why is that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England, and the US railroads were built by English expatriates.

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? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons.

Okay! Why did the wagons have that particularly odd wheel spacing? Well, if they used any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break when used on some of the old, rutted, long distance roads in England. So who built those old roads? The first long distance roads in Europe (and England) were built by Imperial Rome for their legions and were used long after that.

And the ruts? The initial ruts, which the wagon builders had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels and wagons, were made by Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made for, or by, Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

Thus, we have the answer to the original question. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot which, naturally, were made wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.

Space Shuttles have two large solid rocket boosters (SRBs) attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to make them a bit larger in diameter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory runs through a tunnel in the mountains and the SRBS have to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and, as a result, is somewhat wider than two horses' behinds.

So, a major design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined by the width of a horse's ass! Specifications and bureaucracies live forever. The next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse's ass came up with it, you may be closer to the truth than you think.

Now there are a lot of questionable facts in the article above, but the central idea doesn't strike as preposterous.

I would not be surprised to find other things that are remnants of the past but ubiquitous in our daily lives. While it could be arduous to identify the vestige of a distant past, it would be comparatively easier to identify relics from our immediate past. 

We live in the age of information technology. Computers, mobile phones and networks have seen accelerated change in the last twenty years. Swift changes in technology are hallmark of first few decades after a breakthrough invention after which the technology matures. 

Consider Twitter. While it is perfectly natural for the current generation to try and express itself in 160 characters, this limit was not an obvious choice. The 160 character limit is a vestige of a past where network resources were scant and device memory expensive. SMS format was arbitrarily limited because somebody thought that was adequate, and today we have a whole medium of expression built on that paradigm.

Consider the modern universal (QWERTY) typewriter. We are using practically the same letter arrangement as was used by  Sholes in the initial design. It is not necessarily the most efficient. There are other designs like the DVORAK keyboard which is much more efficient. But for Legacy reasons we QWERTY is the most popular in modern computers. QWERTY was designed so that frequently typed together letters are a safe distance so that the mechanical keyboard does not jam. This constraint does not exist anymore. But we are still stuck with the past.

We are certainly moving forward in science and technology and creating new products and more efficiency, but there is also room for retrospective innovation where gaps created by constraints of the past need to be filled with current knowledge and technology.

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