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No. 229:
Track Widths

Today, we talk about computers and railroad tracks. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I find myself drawn into more and more arguments about computer systems these days. For example, it's hard for IBM and Macintosh owners to trade files -- to communicate through their computers. That's because computers have different operating systems. Choosing one over another comes perilously close to choosing among friends in the workplace.

Author Michael Gianturco tells about a problem like that in England 150 years ago. A lot of railroad track was already in place when the first steam locomotives came along. 18th-century English miners used horse-drawn trains to move coal out of mines. Tradesmen used them to shuttle goods between canals.

So the first steam locomotives rode on track that was already in place. Tyneside Colliery tracks were most common. They were 4 feet, 8½ inches wide. Then Isambard Kingdom Brunel built the Great Western Railway system in 1836, and he laid his tracks seven feet apart.

Rolling stock would get bigger, Brunel said. Future trains would do better on wider tracks. It was a good point, but he had an ulterior motive. He meant to make people choose between his superior trains and the competition.

What actually happened was that both the Great Western line and the other lines kept right on growing. Travelers had to keep changing trains because tracks didn't match. By the end of the 19th century, the English were fed up. They legislated the narrower track into a legal standard. In the end, the Great Western had to convert all its equipment.

Those problems dogged America as well. The fact that Yankee and Confederate track didn't match affected the outcome of the Civil War. Today, all America uses the old Tyneside Colliery gage. It may not not be optimal, but it's one we all agree on. And that's what's really important.

Now the computer industry faces the same problems. We're being divided not only by operating systems, but by computer networks as well. Enormous investments ride on systems that can't yet serve us fully because they can't talk to each other.

Problems like this have grown worse since technology began accelerating in the early 19th century. We've decided between AC and DC, between dirigibles and airplanes, and among typewriter keyboard designs -- all in the heat of the marketplace -- before the facts were in. We can't avoid making decisions that way when technology is vital and active. But we'll surely make wiser choices when we understand what a volatile force the marketplace is in a fast-moving technology.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Gianturco, M., The Supernets are Coming. Forbes, Feb. 20, 1989, pp. 112-116.