It’s funny how some events lead to other events, and how we came to be as we are. Pretty much everything we do and every aspect of civilization is a result of the whole history of mankind. It’s like a coral reef that just keeps being built up and up on itself, each layer shaped by the layer before, and the one before that. Some of the most commonplace things have some of the most ridiculous causes.
There was a story I heard in college from one of my professors, Dr. Pilgrim I believe, about just such a chain of causation. Apparently, the booster rockets for the space shuttle were manufactured in California and had to travel by rail across the country to reach their eventual destination in Florida. As such, their width was restricted because they had to be able to fit onto rail cars and more importantly, to get through railway tunnels. Of course, the width of a railway tunnel is a direct result of the width of railroad tracks. Now, when the first railroads were being built, they were often built on top of older roads, and roads of that time invariably had ruts where the wheels of carts, wagons, and carriages would wear down the dirt. The rails naturally went along the ruts. The ruts got built up because all carts and wagons all had a fairly consistent width, which seems strange by itself, but makes sense when we remember that most of the first European roads were built by the Romans to ensure timely communication with their armies in far corners of the empire. The Romans built all the roads to a standard width, wide enough for the chariots which were the fastest means of travel at the time. The chariot with it’s rider or riders required two horses side by side to adequately pull. So the conclusion of this story was that the booster rockets of the Space Shuttle are limited to the width they are because of the width of two horses’ butts.
The chain of causation for a simple thing like railroad width goes back to an empire that fell over 1500 years ago. Think of all the other things that must have been impacted by the width of railroads and the like. That’s how civilization works. We invent new gadgets to do new tasks. We try new things. We keep what works and discard what doesn’t, but it’s always affected in small ways by whatever preceded it. There are many more such examples. The width of the roads we drive on are different in Europe and in the United States because where the former were mostly built before the invention of the automobile, when streets were mostly for walking or the occasional horse and buggy, and the latter were mostly built in the last century specifically for the automobile. The city of New Orleans is now below sea level not because it was built that way, but because over two centuries people have pumped enough water out of the ground to lower the land. I could rattle off a dozen examples of how video game concepts can be traced back to one particular title or another, or how the history of printer technology has unfolded, but I’ll spare you that. There’s almost always a reason things are the way they are. Sometimes it’s not a very good reason, and sometimes you have to go back a long way to find the source, but it’s there, for those that care to look.