IT'S ALWAYS BEEN THAT WAY
By Archie P. McDonald
It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I am pressed to have the opportunity to explain the utilitarian value of the content of my profession. One of my favorite younger people, Amy Key, avoided taking her required history courses as long as possible because she dreaded them so. Her success in the business world certainly questions the thesis that knowing history is necessary for the actualization of one’s potential. Henry Ford claimed that “History is bunk,” and Voltaire said it was only “a bag of tricks played upon the dead.” Maybe, maybe not. A thing may be worth knowing so you can puncture the bureaucratic claim that we must repeat something because “it has always been done that way.”
Consider this: do you know why the standard gauge for most railroads in America—excepting only a few mountain routes—is four feet, 8.5 inches?
I learned this useful information from a friend, and now pass it along to you without charge:
Congress set that gauge because the first railroads constructed in America in the 1830s were laid by Englishmen, and that is the gauge they had learned in England building tramways.
They did so in England because they learned their skills building tramways utilizing that gauge.
Tramway builders used a gauge of four feet, 8.5 inches because they used the same jigs and other tools employed earlier to make wagons.
Wagon makers used that gauge because it accommodated the ruts in stone roads in an England ruled by Rome.
And Romans laid out the ruts at that gauge to match the wheels of their chariots.
Chariots wheels were so spaced to accommodate two-horse teams.
So the next time someone plays the history card and tells you that a thing has to be done a certain way “because its always been that way,” be reminded that the gauge of American railroads depended on the width of two Roman horses’ patoots.
That puts history, and philosophy, into perspective.
If you learn not one more thing today, consider yourself profited. You now know that the merit of history—like gold—is intrinsic.
Archie P. McDonald was a professor of history and Community Liaison at Stephen F. Austin State University. His commentaries were also featured each Friday morning on Red River Radio.