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Horse’s arse spotting

This is an absolute classic, picked up and copied in full (I think) by Natalie Solent. Which is a good thing because the link to it supplied by Natalie was also a horse’s arse when I tried it.

The piece in question is both an utterly convincing and an utterly hilarious explanation (based on the size of the standard horse’s arse) of why the standard railway gauge throughout the world is 4ft 8.5 ins, and it has a delightful space age postscript.

Increasing the chances that everyone on earth reads things like this is one of the basic purposes of Samizdata, as far as I’m concerned. Instapundit: do your thing, if you haven’t already. UK Transport (quiet at the moment – I believe Patrick Crozier is moving house) eat your heart out.

11 comments to Horse’s arse spotting

  • Dale Amon

    I first saw this as a proof the Roman Bureaucracy was involved in the design of the Space Shuttle. You can go another step from the rail gauge to some factors in the sizing of Shuttle components…

  • Kevin Connors

    A funny story, Brian. However, you are incorrect. The railroad gage in the old Soviet Union is 5 feet. I guess the bred bigger horse’s asses over there.

  • Kevin Connors

    Update: it seems that the world is even more diverse than that. For a listing of railroad gages in different nations of the world, check this site:


  • Brian Micklethwait

    Deepest apologies to all trainspotters.

  • A reader to my blog, Robert Dammers, sent in a rather scornful Snopes rundown on the story. However, as I noted there the actual text of the Snopes account is a good deal more favourable to the theory than the status indicator would suggest.

  • Yes, that story’s been on business-school syllabuses for well over a decade.

    The Snopes takedown does actually confirm the story, oddly enough. Of course there plenty of other gauges that might have won quite apart from one of the US Confederacy gauges, most famously Isombard Kingdom Brunel’s 7-foot gauge for Great Western which was found to give much more stable ride, but came too late to unseat the incumbent standard.

    Continental Europe is full of non-4′-8.5″ railway gauges (Spain and Portugal, for example). This creates a typical European contrast between their obsession with imposing outdated standards like the metric system (like generals always fighting a previous war) instead of standardising things which actually matter now – like their over twenty competing electric-socket standards and their over twenty incompatible phone-jack standards (three inside France alone).

  • C’mon, guys, this is obviously a historical urban legend, like the one about Catherine the Great and the horse or the one about how the British V sign comes from the archers at Agincourt or the one about how either “kangaroo”, “Yucatan”, and / or Nome got their names or the one about how some famous hero said “I have not yet begun to fight” or “I regret that I have only one life to give for my country”. It’s been going around for years and has been widely debunked as an extraordinary claim that requires at least some evidence before I believe it. None, of course, is provided. The neat finish to the story should tip everyone off that it’s a Paul Harveyesque fabrication based on jumping to an awful lot of conclusions and tracing very faint connections between rather unconnected things. After all, EVERY historical event is connected in some way to every other. I could draw a connection between the invention of electric light by Edison and the fact that a bunch of hippies took a lot of dope in the Sixties if I tried hard enough.

  • Sorry. I didn’t intend to come on so strong. No insult or offense intended. This is just a story that seems like it makes sense the first time you hear it but if you sit down and think about it then you detect the holes.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    Another killjoy by the name of “Kirk Hole” has also emailed that he “hates to rain on your parade” etc. etc., and sent this link, which explains why it ain’t so, and George Stephenson made it up based on the tracks in one of his coal mines.

    Which means it was a pit pony’s arse instead.

  • Kevin Connors

    Oh, who cares? It’s an amusing story anyway. Frankly, I’d be more interested in learning how Europe ended up with all those different standards for electrical connections it makes an interesting case viv-a-vis government imposted standards on industry; currently a hotbutton with cellphones:


  • How Europe ended up with all those different standards for phone jacks and electric plugs?

    Easy. Each government intervened to give its own industry a unique standard [a basic form of trade protectionism] so as to make it hard for imported equipment to compete. Then they hypocritically used the European Union to attack everyone else’s exceptions while grimly protecting their own.