by Richard Riehle
1. If you were to go to a mid 1950’s road house for a meal, you would likely get a ‘blue plate special’. I suspect that most living Americans don’t have an idea as to what this might be…There have been so many radical changes to the American diet, the types of foods which we eat, and the cultures which defined them since that time in the 50’s… American restaurant culture has changed (from fast food to the heights of haute cuisine) to encompass so many new additions that some regions (especially areas without distinct culinary practices) have wither been erased, or are just hanging on the ropes.
So, my question is to consider how strange the food we eat would be to those post WWII Americans, and then to consider the things which we might consider to be too strange to consider…now.
2 The person, place, or time which was involved in creating or popularizing particular articles of clothing or personal artifacts can sometimes revolve around the smallest of most innocuous things…
The end of men’s hats… John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961 was notable for the fact that while he wore a morning coat, he wore no formal hat (a ‘top hat’). This was so startling to many fashion mavens that the whole idea of wearing hats (for men) went into rapid decline.
Men’s wrist watches…Prior to WWII men carries pocket watches in order to be able to tell time. Officers in the trenches who were encumbered with lots of clothing and gear couldn’t be bothered with fishing or a pocket watch, especially when there was a need to be able to tell time quickly. Thus the ‘wrist’ watch was invented…
The modern business suit and the tuxedo… What we consider to be the modern men’s business suit was based upon the hunting clothing which Prince Albert wore when grouse hunting in Scotland. The modern Tuxedo is an evening version of the morning coat (in 1800 this was considered to be the equivalent of wearing a bathrobe in the ‘morning’ for aristocrats…).
So, one wonders what will be the outcome of wearing low slung pants and baseball hats with regard to future formal wear…
3. What is the reason for the railroad gauges we use?
This is an old story (literally and figuratively), in that I have heard this story many times over the years. Nonetheless, it is a wonderful cautionary story…cautionary in the sense that many of the little things which we do could very well echo down through history…
Was standard railroad gauge (4’8½") determined by Roman chariot ruts?
I came across the following in the book Gordian Knot: Political Gridlock on the Information Highway by W. Russell Neuman, Lee McKnight, and Richard Jay Solomon:
As an accident of history most road carriages in the Middle Ages inherited the old Roman cart gauge of approximately 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches. Julius Caesar set this width under Roman law so that vehicles could traverse Roman villages and towns without getting caught in stone ruts of differing widths. Over the centuries this became the traditional standard.
Richard Solomon, the source of this bit, has elaborated in a message posted to the net that Caesar decided on standard gauge after seeing a "grooveway" at the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece. This was a purposely built set of ruts used to guide the wheels on carts carrying goods being transshipped across the isthmus. Prof. Solomon says he personally measured an excavated portion of this ancient grooveway and found it had a gauge of four feet, eight and a half inches.
The gauge between the ruts is very similar to that adopted by George Stephenson for the Stockton to Darlington railway in 1837 and a ‘Wall myth’ developed that he took this gauge from the newly excavated east gate. There is a common link, but it is more prosaic and the ‘coincidence’ is explained by the fact that the dimension common to both was that of a cart axle pulled by two horses in harness (about 1.4m or 4ft 8in). This determined both the Roman gauge and Stephenson’s, which derived from the horse drawn wagon ways of south Northumberland and County Durham coalfields.
The ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks constructed roads with artificial wheelruts cut in rock spaced the wheelspan of an ordinary carriage. Such ancient stone rutways connected major cities with sacred sites, such as Athens to Eleusis, Sparta to Ayklia, or Elis to Olympia. The gauge of these stone grooves was 138 to 144 cm (4 ft 6 in to 4 ft 9 in). The largest number of preserved stone trackways, over 150, is found on Malta.
Some of these ancient stone rutways were very ambitious. Around 600 BC the citizens of ancient Corinth constructed the Diolkos, which some consider the world’s first railway, a granite road with grooved tracks along which large wooden flatbed cars carrying ships and their cargo were pulled by slaves or draft animals. The space between the grooved tracks in the granite was a consistent 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in).
The Roman Empire actually made less use of stone trackways than the prior Greek civilization because the Roman roads were much better than those of previous civilizations. However, there is evidence that the Romans used a more or less consistent wheel gauge adopted from the Greeks throughout Europe, and brought it to England with the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43. After the Roman departure from Britain, this more-or-less standard gauge continued in use, so the wheel gauge of animal drawn vehicles in 19th century Britain was 1.4 to 1.5 m (4 ft 7 in to 4 ft 10 in). In 1814 George Stephenson copied the gauge of British coal wagons in his area (about 1.42 m (4 ft 8 in)) for his new locomotive, and for technical reasons widened it slightly to achieve the modern railway standard gauge of 1.435 m (4 ft 8.5 in).
The net result is that the Railroad track gauge in the USA was based upon what the British were using for their railroads; in turn this was based upon what animal drawn carts had for axle widths in the UK. IN turn, this was based upon some of the oldest engineering in the UK…Roman Roads. In turn, this was based upon what Julius Caesar (allegedly) saw in Greece (the spacing between wagon wheel ruts. In turn the Greeks followed the examples of the Persians and even the earlier Assyrians used for their archaic oxen drawn wagons and carts…