Those who know me well know that, despite the good fortune of a reasonable education, I remain a lowly petrolhead. Whether it’s Formula One, Bathurst, or a Red Bull Air Race, as soon as the engines start revving I get a little bit excitable. I like to think that is because I’m intellectually stimulated by the massive logistics operation required to achieve these feats of engineering and racing prowess but, in truth, I’m just a boofhead.
However, one of the reasons I love motorsport of all kinds is because it continually pushes the boundaries of what is possible. The faster we go, and the further we try to go, the more we evolve and raise standards of performance. That ethos, in my view, is epitomised by NASA (the ultimate in petrolhead achievement) and the space shuttle program which is not only a magnificent example of the fastest and furthest manned space travel has ever gone but also a cautionary tale of what can happen when standards don’t evolve.
In my research for this article, I read an interesting analysis of how the United States standard railroad gauge ultimately limited the potential of the space shuttle program. By way of explanation, let me first point out that the standard railroad gauge in the United States is four feet, eight and one-half inches. That’s the standard for the entire rail network and it has never changed. I’m sure you will agree that’s an unusual sort of number to come up with and you might be wondering how it happened. It happened because that was the standard that the English railroad builders brought with them to America. Why did the English build them this wide? Because British railway lines were built by the same people who built the tramways that came before them and that’s the standard gauge that was used for tramways.
So, why did they use that gauge?
Because the same jigs, tools and people that built wagons built the tramways and they used the standard wagon-wheel spacing of four feet, eight and one-half inches. That wagon-wheel spacing was developed and standardised due to a very practical, hard-to-change and easy-to-match reality. When Britain was ruled by Imperial Rome, Roman war chariots all used a standard spacing between their wheels. Over time this standard spacing left deep ruts along the extensive road network that the Romans built. If the wheels on your cart didn’t match the ruts in the road made by Roman chariots then your wheels were going to break. Making sense so far? Here comes the best bit.
The Romans came up with their standard after all sorts of trial and error determined that the best width that would accommodate the rear end of two horses was four feet, eight and one-half inches. Thus, the United States standard railroad gauge is a hand-me-down standard based upon the original specification for the rear end of two Roman nags!
This doesn’t end at railroads though. You’ll remember that the space shuttle had two big booster rockets that attached to the sides of the main fuel tank to help lift it into space. Those boosters were made by a company called Thiokol, and shipped by train from their factory in Utah to the launch site in Florida. The railroad line from the factory ran through a mountain tunnel only slightly wider than the railroad track. Even if the Thiokol engineers wanted fatter or bigger booster rockets for the space shuttle the railway gauge limited their design. The Space shuttle design was limited by the average width of the arse-end of two, 2000 year-old horses.
This is what happens when standards are never challenged. The problem with so many of our standards is that they are never questioned and no one ever points out that, in the modern world, the ‘standard’ might just be a little silly. Not all standards are good things and truly great things are never standard.
Standards are not there to be set in stone. They are there to evolve. They are there to be pushed to ever-higher levels of performance and, ultimately, the only standard that counts is your own. I despair when I see businesses embracing benchmarking and world’s best practice without thinking and without any effort to improve upon it. Just because everyone else does it does not make it desirable. If you want to have a standard you had better make it one of your own because all too often the standard you are copying is ill conceived or irrelevant.
Just imagine how much better the space shuttle could have been. Just imagine how much faster and how much further we can go.