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In 1946, the U.S. joined with 25 other nations to form the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
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Railroad Tracks

The development of a standard railroad track gauge (i.e., distance between the rails) made possible the interchangeability of railroad cars.

Most early American railroads had their own gauges. Eventually, President Lincoln ordered that all gauges be 5 feet. Leaders in the railroad industry did not agree on this standard, eventually compromising on a measurement of four feet, eight and one-half inches (4’8.5”) throughout the nation.

The U.S. measurements do not agree with the track gage of some other countries, such as in South America where the distance between rails is five feet, six inches (5’ 6”) and in South Africa where the distance is only three feet, six inches (3’6”).

And here's another version of the Railroad Track legend . . .

Why did the founders of the U.S. rail system agree on a gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches?

Because that's the measurement that was used to build the rail system in England . . . and the U.S. railroads were built by English expatriates. Why did the English people build them like that? 

Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used. Why did "they" use that gauge then? 

Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing. Okay!  Why did the wagons use that odd wheel spacing? 

Well, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagons would break on some of the old, long distance roads, because that's the spacing of the old wheel ruts. So who built these old rutted roads? 

The first long distance roads in Europe were built by Imperial Rome for the benefit of their legions.  The roads have been used ever since.  And the ruts? 

The initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagons, were first made by Roman war chariots.  Since the chariots were made for or by Imperial Rome they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

Thus, we have the answer to the original question.  The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original specification (Military Spec) for an Imperial Roman army war chariot.

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