Railway Gauges and Path Dependency
| Dick Langlois |
You’ve all read the viral email asserting that the railroad gauge we have today — and, in some versions, the size of the space shuttle fuel tanks, which had to be transported by rail — is a direct result of the wheel gauge of Roman chariots. Not surprisingly, the real story is more complex, and many gauges coexisted (and to some extent continue to coexist) in the U.S. and around the world. My former colleague Doug Puffert tells this story in full detail in his new book, Tracks across Continents, which has just appeared from the University of Chicago Press. The book is a useful addition to the catalog of case studies of path-dependent technology.
The book came out of Doug’s thesis at Stanford, where he worked with Paul David and Brian Arthur. He was a visitor at UConn in the 1988-89 academic year. I can still remember his seminar presentations, which involved simulating the evolution of railways on a Macintosh of the era. (One thing you probably won’t learn in Doug’s official bio is that, before coming to UConn, he won a car on Wheel of Fortune. I always tell students about this when I teach the QWERTY story — a student of Paul David who really knew his letter frequencies.)