3 Engineering Urban Myths

April 30, 2015

The Internet gives us the ability to drill down to the truth in seconds, but we use it to spread urban myths faster than engineers can debunk them. I’ll take these three.

In Civil Engineering, Do as the Romans Do

Some standards last so long as to be de facto laws of design. Hull size for many cargo and military vessels is still influenced by decisions made on the Panama Canal project a century ago, for example, and the space community is essentially tied to technology path decisions made generations ago by a certain Austrian lunatic.

It’s not surprising that so many believe that US railroad track gauge standards are set for backwards compatibility — with Roman chariots from thousands of years ago:

The story begins with a question asking why the U.S. standard railroad gauge (the distance between rails) is 4 feet 8-1/2 inches, which seems an odd number. The answer given is that English ex-patriots built U.S. railroads, and 4 feet 8-1/2 inches was the standard railroad track gauge in England because the railroad tracks were built on top of road ruts created by the Romans to accommodate their war chariots.

Supposedly, the Romans had a MilSpec that set the wheel spacing at 4 feet 8-1/2 inches for their war chariots and all Roman rut roads. Eventually, railroad tracks were laid on top of the road ruts. The final punch line is that the U.S. standard railroad gauge derives from the original MilSpec for an Imperial Roman army war chariot proving that MilSpecs and bureaucracies live forever.

This is an enduring favorite in the engineering community; I’ve even seen it used to link the size of the Space Shuttle’s SRBs to the width of a horse’s butt. It’s nonsense, though.

I’m a fan of Roman history, so the fact that they didn’t use chariots for military or commercial traffic busted this one for me immediately. Chariots were nearly obsolete well before Rome was even a Republic and the Empire only used them as parade floats or in sporting competitions.

Further, as the (uncredited) author of the above piece explains, there were more than twenty competing standards in use in the US alone by the mid-19th century. The 4′ 8.5″ figure just happened to emerge as the national standard following a Civil War — lots of torn up tracks to rebuild — and decades of wrangling between military, commerical, and government commitees.

Was Stephenson’s original railroad influenced by the width of old Roman roads? Maybe. But there’s no continuity between current US gauge standards and a vehicle the Roman army never used in the first place.

Engineering Urban Myths Chariot NLC Products

Credit: NLC Products

The Soviets Just Used Pencils!

I repeated this one a time or two, before having it kindly and thoroughly debunked by friends in the space fanatics community. In its essential form, the story praises Russian practicality and pokes at the (perception of!) wasteful over-engineering and inflated expense in American aerospace engineering — while NASA blew millions developing the Space Pen, cosmonauts brought regular old pencils.

Engineering Urban Myths Space Pen PC Fisher

Credit: PC Fisher

Great story, but wrong in so many ways.

There’s a core of truth to this, as usual. Both nations sent pencils into space, at first: the Soviets used standard-issue grease pencils and the Americans a $128 mechanical pencil. Both were ill-suited for the task, but neither agency had a better answer.

Entrepreneurs love a vacuum. (Sorry.)

Enter Paul Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company.

Paul Fisher’s space pen was a product of private industry, with not a cent of federal R&D money spent in its design. He developed the pen privately, patented it in 1965, sold them to NASA for $6 each in 1967, and to the Russians in 1969.

Ironically, the satisfaction in mocking over-elaborate, expensive, and bureaucratic public sector design that fuels this myth obscures a better story; it was the private sector that delivered, better and cheaper, where NASA and the Soviets failed.

Your move, Mr. Musk.

C++ Is a Massive Conspiracy

What if Dr. Bjarne Stroustrup developed and maintained C++ for twenty years as an elaborate, global job security con?

Every once and awhile, allegedly redacted snippets of this interview between Dr. Stroustrup and an IEEE journalist surface in programming forums around the web.

They typically read a little like this

Stroustrup: Well, it’s been long enough, now, and I believe most people have figured out for themselves that C++ is a waste of time but, I must say, it’s taken them a lot longer than I thought it would…

Interviewer: Yes, but C++ is basically a sound language.

Stroustrup: You really believe that, don’t you? Have you ever sat down and worked on a C++ project? Here’s what happens: First, I’ve put in enough pitfalls to make sure that only the most trivial projects will work first time. Take operator overloading. At the end of the project, almost every module has it, usually, because guys feel they really should do it, as it was in their training course. The same operator then means something totally different in every module. Try pulling that lot together, when you have a hundred or so modules. And as for data hiding, God, I sometimes can’t help laughing when I hear about the problems companies have making their modules talk to each other.

Sometimes, the fake Dr. Stroustrup is more blunt

Stroustrup: Well, one day, when I was sitting in my office, I thought of this little scheme, which would redress the balance a little. I thought ‘I wonder what would happen, if there were a language so complicated, so difficult to learn, that nobody would ever be able to swamp the market with programmers?

Engineering Urban Myths Bjarne Stroustrup

Credit: Bjarne Stroustrup

From Stroustrup’s perspective, the myth isn’t worth more attention than a sentence in his FAQ: “Of course not”. But he would say that, wouldn’t he?

As with most conspiracies, however, this one requires far too many moving parts for credibility. Consider how many programmers, businessess, and hackers would have to deduce the nature of C++, divine Stroustrup’s market-facing reasoning, and agree to maintain the conspiracy… all without apparent coordination and, in some cases, against their economic interests.

C++ – focused positions represent only 12% of our software engineering jobs, so perhaps that’s exactly how it went down.


Featured Image Credit: Nic McPhee

JF Stackhouse says:

Thanks, Steve. How are things over at PDD?

Lino Garcia says:

Very intresting.