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The Horse’s Ass, Space Shuttles and Science Fiction

Sounds like a punchline to a joke but there is a pervasive story that claims to show a direct technological connection between the first two elements and an actual connection to the third.

Apparently, the Romans, being consummate bureaucrats, loved their standards. Roman military chariots were drawn by two horses in tandem which set the axle width at 4’ 8.5”, corresponding to the width of two horses’ rumps. It also determined the width of the roads. Allegedly, these chariots rutted the roads which prompted other vehicle builders to use the same axle width to allow their vehicles to ride with in the same ruts and not destroy themselves.
Over the years this standard width was adopted far and wide and, in particular, in England. When tramways were being built (and later, railways) the same standard was used for rolling stock.
These English tradesmen bought their practices and jigs to the US to build many of the early railways where eventually the 4’ 8.5” gauge, after some turns and twists, became the standard. Interesting side story here involving the Civil War, but I digress.

Many years later, as the Space Shuttle was being developed, Thiokol Inc. in Utah won the bid to build the solid rocket boosters. These had to be transported via rail for final assembly in Florida. On the journey, they had to pass through a tunnel whose diameter was not much more than that needed to accommodate the 4’ 8.5” gauge railway system.

Therefore, the size of the solid rocket boosters on the most complex craft ever built at that time had been predetermined 2,000 years earlier by a horse’s ass.

While I love the story, sadly, it doesn’t stand up to close examination … first and foremost the Roman part does not add up: The Legions did not use war chariots … these were only used in races in the hippodromes and in ceremonies. Further, Roman roads were built at least 8’ wide and important roads were either cobbled or surfaced with macadam. In any event, they were not rutted.

The Shuttle part does not add up either. The boosters didn’t have to be built in Utah nor transported by rail … the shuttle’s main fuel tank was nearly 28’ in diameter and transported in by barge from Louisiana.

While not entirely accurate, the story does represent a larger truth … Technological systems do in fact follow evolutionary paths much like biological ones do. Decisions and developments we embrace today will have long reaching influences over how technology evolves in the future.

For example, electrification and elevators gave birth to the sky scraper. The sky scraper birthed the modern city. The modern city countless other innovations ..think Uber.

The prehistoric evolution of technology is very instructive in that it manifests ‘laws’ much like biological evolution does. Due to the dearth of communication, travel and trade, Technological Evolution in Africa, Asia, Eurasia, America and Australia arose independently for its first 2.5 million years.

It follows this pattern no matter where it arose: Stone Tools -> Fire -> Pigments -> Counting -> Weaving -> Pottery -> Animal Husbandry -> Metallurgy -> Wheel -> Glass.

In no case, for example, have we ever seen Metallurgy come before Pottery although there is no physical reason for that rule.

The only technology not on the above timeline is formal speech. I use the term ‘formal speech’ to differentiate it from other forms of communication in the animal kingdom. Thousands of scholarly pages have been written on the subject. We won’t go into that here.

The acquisition of speech is such a transformational development that it is in a category all its own making possible everything we have become. It accelerated technological evolution, permitted its distribution throughout the entire planet, and gave us greater control over its form and, to some extent, its future.

Homo Sapiens emerged about 200,000 years ago. Same species as you and me but not quite a modern human. We can only surmise that language and speech as we know it emerged generally 100,000 years ago, based on statistical and other types of studies. This is not an absolute number just an educated approximation.

In the 2.4 million years from the first use of stone tools to the creation of beads 110,000 years ago, paleontologist have identified roughly 10 major and distinct technological ‘inventions’ or discoveries including the use of fire, cooking, shelter construction, clothing, pigments and glue.

In the mere 99,000 years since the advent of speech until the invention of glass in 1,000 BC, one can count roughly 35 major, distinct discoveries. Things like pottery, the domestication of animals, agriculture, the wheel, sailing, and docks, just to name a few. In the last 3,000 years, the pace of technological evolution has so accelerated as to completely transform every eco-system on earth.

It is even directly controlling human evolution. The sociological, political, and cultural impact of technology is so obvious that it does not even need to be mentioned except in passing.

Amazingly, Technology is actually changing human biological evolution. We have become domesticated by technology and domestication is always manifested by declining body mass and smaller brain size.

Indeed, anthropologist have confirmed that humans are both less bulky and possess measurably smaller brains than they did 30,000 years ago.

But don’t worry, this does not necessarily condemn us to ‘stupidity’. For one, compact brains may be more efficient at rapid computations … also our smaller bodies require less neural pathways. We are also able to offload information processing to either specialized humans and/or our technological creations.

Is there any point to all this?

Actually, yes. Although the story about the Horses Ass and the Shuttle may not be entirely factual, it is a fact that we are co-evolving with technology and technology follows rules that predate us and are, to a large extent, independent from humanity.

Good, bad or indifferent, this makes for a VERY interesting future and that’s what Science Fiction is all about.

One Comment

  1. milesdavidson
    milesdavidson March 11, 2017

    Comment by Author … I was surprised when I first read that the human brain was shrinking, but more so that our bodies have shrunk … I remember years ago visiting museums displaying 16th century armor and noticing how short the users must have been … 5’5″ was the average height.

    After researching, I found that indeed these statements are correct. Today we have smaller brains and bodies than our distant ancestors.

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