It is a great history story, and as is true with most good stories, is more apocryphal than perhaps we want to investigate. Since facts should never be allowed to interfere with a good story, here it is, warts and all.
There is an old truism that you should never invent something twice, and railways are a good example of this. The vast majority of the railways in the United States, Western Europe, and South America use the same railway gauge, Standard Gauge. (If you get there first, you get to set the standard.) The gauge refers to the distance between the two rails, and for Standard Gauge, this is 4’ 8 1/2” wide. This is not nearly as arbitrary as you might think.
Note. For some reason, it is damn near impossible for me to type the word ‘gauge’. My brain insists on typing ‘guage’. I don’t mean once, but every damn time. Somewhere in the far recesses of my brain, back where I keep such manly knowledge as how to tighten bolts without reciting idiotic rhymes and I store cool facts about tanks, there is a little voice saying “U Before A except after G…” This kind of advanced brain rot is obviously the fault of the Russians.
Almost two millennia ago, the Romans used a lot of bronze. While it was nominally the Iron Age, bronze was still tough, easy to work, and far easier to produce. Bronze is made up of copper and tin—both of which are individually too soft to be useful for making tools. Rome had lots of copper, but tin was relatively rare, forcing Rome to send her armies far afield to look for sources of tin. This quest eventually led the Romans to British Cornwall in the third century AD.
Rome ran those mines for several centuries—long enough that the Roman carts wore grooves in the rock floors of the tin mines. The methodical Romans had already established a standard wheel base for carts and wagons. In Roman towns, the streets had a set width, with stepping stones at intersections. The spaces between the stepping stones were carefully maintained so that carts, with a standardized wheel base, could pass between the stones. The carts used were four wheeled, pulled by two horses walking abreast.
By the 18th century, the Romans were long gone from Cornwall. (See last week’s blog for an alternative ending.) The deep grooves in the mine floor left by Roman wagons remained, and the miners had learned to build ore carts that used the grooves as tracks. By the first decade of the 19th century, some of those carts were pulled by steam engines. More efficient tracks were needed, so the grooves in the floors were replaced, first by wooden rails, and then by iron and steel rails. And of course they were still using the wheel base first established by the Romans: 4’ 8 1/2”, or standard gauge. Over half the railroad racks on the planet use this same standard.
This means that half the railroads in the world, their bridges, their tunnels, and all the rolling stock that travels on them, were designed based on the width of two Roman horses’ asses. I could stretch this story out by telling you how the Space Shuttle was designed around the maximum size of the solid rocket boosters whose size, in turn, was dictated by a railroad tunnel outside the Morton Thiokol plant in Colorado—all of which were determined by those same two horses’ asses…but this story is already stretched a little thin.
There are, of course, other gauges in use. The wider the gauge, the more distance it takes for a train to make tight turns, so in the mountains, narrower gauges are used. One of these, called Three Foot Gauge, is widely used at mines located in high mountains and all amusement parks. Disney probably owns more narrow gauge track and rolling stock than any mining operation on the planet. There is even an obscure railway gauge halfway between Standard and Narrow Gauge that is called Bastard Gauge. (That sounds like something you use to measure Congressmen.)
Russia uses a wider gauge, Broad Gauge, supposedly on the orders of Joseph Stalin. The Russian leader thought that if his country used the same railroad gauge as Germany, it would make it easy for Hitler to invade. When Germany invaded, they simply moved one of the rails a few inches as they advanced. When the Germans retreated towards the end of the war, they were far more efficient. They used a specially designed car equipped with a road wrecking plow, a Schwellenpflug, to destroy the railway as they made their way west.
Once he had won the war, Hitler planned on linking the major European capitals together with a new railroad gauge he called Breitspurbahn, which would have been an impressive 9’ 10 1/8” wide. And it would have taken half of Siberia to turn this monster around. No track was ever laid. Nor has anyone ever explained how, once you got a giant ten foot wide train moving, how you could ever hope to stop it.
By this point, you have probably forgotten that I started this by saying some of the above was stretching the truth just a little. None of it is completely wrong, but the connection to the Romans is a little tenuous.
Actually, however, there is an even older railway. One that absolutely existed and was used for centuries long before the first steam engine, even before the creation of Imperial Rome. This is the ancient Greek railway, the Diolkos of Corinth. This is without a doubt, man’s first railway, the first profitable railway, and the longest used railway. While the oldest railway in England is barely two hundred years old, the Diolkos was used for at least 700 years. You’ve probably never heard of it.
For the ancient Greek mariner, there were substantial profits to be made by hauling goods from the Ionian Sea to the Adriatic. Rich seaports were already developing ports stocked with trading goods. One of the largest hazards was sailing completely around the Peloponnese peninsula. Not only did this make the trip substantially longer, but the area was noted for heavy gales and contrary winds. At one point, however, the isthmus is only four miles wide, and if this could be crossed, a trip from Athens to Corinth could be shortened by more than 70%.
Constructed in approximately 600 B.C., the Diolkos (Greek for Portage Machine) was a stone track leading across the isthmus. A boat would pull up on one side of the isthmus, be pulled onto a wheeled cart, then pulled across the isthmus. The cart had large wooden wheels that sat firmly into evenly spaced grooves on the roadway and could handle loads up to approximately 40 tons. Once on the other side of the isthmus, the cart would roll back to the waters edge and the ship could be relaunched.
It was an impressive undertaking. The railway was a little over 4 miles long and had a grade that averaged about 3% with a maximum of about 6%, which is comparable to that of the American highway system. Men with ropes would haul the ship up the hill, then slowly allow the ship to roll down the opposite bank while men with buckets of wet sand tried to slow the descent by throwing the sand into the tracks. For an average-sized commercial boat, the entire trip was just a few hours.
The Diolkos was used for commerce, but figured prominently in multiple wars—including a rather famous one in which Octavian (who later changed his name to Augustus) surprised Mark Antony in 31 B.C. by moving a fleet ahead of the fleeing general, forcing him to set sail for Egypt and Cleopatra.
Eventually, of course, people couldn’t leave well enough alone. The old saying, "The Enemy of Good is Better", is applicable here. After centuries of operation, the Roman emperor Nero decided that if a railway was good, a canal would be better. The construction was started, the docks on both sides of the isthmus were destroyed, and then both Nero and the canal project died. Over 1700 years later, the canal was completed in 1893 and is still in use. Sadly, much of the old railway was destroyed in building the canal.
By now, you must be asking…what was the gauge of the Diolkos? About 63 inches, or roughly Standard Gauge.