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Ancient Egyptian Railways

by Ralph Ellis


I discovered an interesting letter on an Internet chatroom, regarding the origins of the width of the track, or the gauge, of the British (worldwide) railway systems. Perhaps the author was being a little tongue-in-cheek, but he suggested that this gauge originated with the Romans, who made waggons of a particular dimension. Because deep ruts were made in roadways and tracks, as can be clearly seen at the famous Roman quarry trackways of Malta, all the succeeding wagon designs had to use the same width or gauge - or risk damaging their wheels on the ruts.

Much later, coalmining tracks used the same gauge, and it was from these early horse-drawn mining trucks at Tyneside in Britain that George Stephenson designed one of the first railway engines in the world, the Rocket. The author then went on to observe that Thiokol, the designers of the solid rocket boosters on the space shuttle, were constrained in their design by the need to transport the Shuttle's boosters by rail. Thus, in the words of this Internet wit, the dimensions of the shuttle were ultimately decreed by the width of the rear-ends of a couple of Roman horses.
But, as is often the case, there is nothing new under the Sun. Having researched the subject a little, I found an almost identical quotation (minus the space-shuttle quip) in a venerable old tome, which was penned by one Stuart H Holbrook. I never did find a precise date for Mr Holbrook's work but, unfortunately for the claims to originality by the Internet wit, this original posting was written in nineteenth century English.

Whatever the date for the origins of this quote, it was an interesting and humorous posting that had more than an element of truth as a backdrop. Just why have our standard measurements and designs come into current usage? Was this by design, accident or, as this author would have us believe, an historical comedy of coincidences? This was a question I had already tried to tackle in the book Thoth, and the surprising answer that I came up with, was that most of our measurement systems are based on the dimensions of the Great Pyramid (GP) and the Thoth or Royal cubit of ancient Egypt.

This claim may seem to be pure unjustifiable speculation at this stage, but let's run with this scenario for a while and see what it delivers. My Egyptian speculation was primarily driven by one glaring, and undeniable fact - that there are exactly 1,760 yards in the Imperial mile unit, and there are also exactly 1,760 cubits in the Great Pyramid's perimeter length. It seemed to be obvious to me that the British Measurement System was based either upon the dimensions of the Great Pyramid itself, or, perhaps, upon the same principles that the Great Pyramid's designer had used.
Thus, it was natural for me to investigate the railway gauge in terms of Egyptian units, as we shall see shortly. So, how was this worldwide railway gauge derived in the first place? The 'standard' railway gauge, as it became known, measures 4 ft 8.5 inches; so what was the reason for using this rather peculiar dimension? The history of the unit is that it was used at the coal mines in Tyneside, and then the horse tramways in Newcastle-upon-Tyne; both being east-coast towns in England.

This gauge was subsequently copied by George Stephenson, presumably for economic reasons, for his Stockton to Darlington railway. His son, Robert, then used the same gauge once more for his Liverpool to Manchester line. As Britain made the majority of railway engines at this time, this gauge width was then subsequently adopted by the majority of countries across the whole world.

I have not seen a definitive rationale for the original Tyneside gauge width, but the influences on its choice would have included the size of the mine shaft tunnels, or drifts, and the amount of coal that a horse or two could pull. But, nevertheless, the actual gauge measurement they finally chose is rather perplexing; why would anyone choose a dimension of 4 ft 8.5 inches? Why not 4 ft, or 5 ft, or perhaps 4 ft 6 inches? The Russians chose 5 ft, and the Spanish, 5 ft 6 inches (these were not metric, but Imperial measurements, due to the British and American lead in locomotive design). Both of these alternative gauges comprised whole-number or simple fraction dimensions, and so the reason for their choice would seem to be more than obvious. The dimension of the standard gauge's 4ft 8.5 inches, however, is 4.7083 feet, and it does not resolve into a simple fraction at all. So why was it chosen?

Could it be, by some remote chance, that the reason for this strange measurement lies in the conversion of this Imperial dimension into Egyptian Thoth cubits - where it then produces 2.75 cubits? It has to be said, that this measurement is a much simpler fraction than the Imperial version, so did this fact somehow influence the strange choice of gauge width? A dank coal mine on the moors of northeast England may be a strange place to find an Egyptian cubit, but bear in mind that the coalmine barons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were amongst the most wealthy and influential industrialists in the world. It is also true that the waggon gauge of ancient Greece was apparently 'between 4ft 6 inches and 5 ft',1 which is undeniably close to the 'standard' gauge width. Did such an ancient custom, somehow or other, find its way into Britain?

The Rod

Even if the Thoth (Royal) cubit from Egypt did lie behind this strange choice of railway gauge, why on earth should anyone choose a unit of 2.75 cubits rather than a whole number like 3 cubits? The answer could well be, as I have said many times before, that just about all the dimensions of the Great Pyramid (GP) are based on the 5.5 cubit rod length; and the ease with which this measurement unit works throughout the Great Pyramid's dimensions has already been demonstrated. But remember, also, that the arguments in Appendix 1 further refined this unit, and suggested that the real rod unit in use should be half that size, or just 2.75 Thoth cubits (tc).

It just so happens, of course, that the 'standard' gauge of the railways also measures 2.75 tc. (To be accurate, 2.75 tc actually measures 4 ft 8.65 ins, if a cubit length of 52.33 cms were used). I am not sure, however, that this intriguing coincidence was derived via the size of a pair of horses' backsides or the width of the ruts in a Roman road, because in fact there is a much more logical way in which this adoption of a foreign unit may have come about.

The first iron rails for tramways were forged in Britain in 1789. The world's first real railway, Richard Trevithick's locomotive 'New Castle', on the Pen-y-darren Tramway near Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, was built in 1804. George Stephenson copied this idea, but his Stockton to Darlington line, built in 1825, was not what one would really call a railway. The Stephensons' first real railway was the Liverpool to Manchester line of 1829, where Robert Stephenson's stage-managed event with the locomotive 'Rocket' eventually stole all the railway accolades from the true pioneer, Trevithick.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel's revolutionary Great Western Railway was not commenced until 1836, when his much wider seven-feet gauge railway was first proposed. It is clear that, although the 4 ft 8.5 inch gauge was widely adopted around the early nineteenth century by Stephenson and his followers, this was obviously not a universal British standard, enshrined in law, at this time. Each railway proposal came before Parliament with its own set of specifications and was approved on its merits. The original specification for the Great Western railway proposed the standard gauge, but Brunel then changed the bill to specify a seven-feet gauge track and Parliament accepted it. The real battle of the competing railway gauges did not start in earnest until 1845, in Bristol.

But if the Egyptian cubit was to be in any way influential in the design of the British railway system, they would have needed to have been rediscovered before 1800. That this is indeed so, can be conclusively proved because we know that Sir Isaac Newton had discovered the exact size of the King's Chamber in the Great Pyramid; and he wrote up the results of his investigations in his booklet called the Dissertation upon the Sacred Cubit of the Jews. Newton used John Greaves' measurements of the pyramids to try and discover the exact length of this 'sacred' cubit and he came up with a length of 52.33 cms, which is remarkably close to the figure that is currently accepted. Although I have a copy of Newton's original booklet, there is unfortunately no date upon this extract; but since we know that Newton died in 1727, it is certain that the exact dimensions of the Thoth cubit were known of, and in wide circulation, in Britain by the time that the railway gauges were created and standardized.


It cannot be stressed enough that the designs of Egypt were quite influential in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Britain. Napoleon had just won the Battle of the Pyramids in 1798, and then Admiral Nelson defeated the French fleet in the Battle of the Nile later that year; forcing Napoleon to surrender. Britain then claimed the spoils, both of Egypt herself and also from the 150 French archaeologists who had been working at all the great sites in Egypt. So, it was in this kind of climate that Brunel, ever the great engineer, proposed a design in 1830 for the longest suspension bridge in the world; the ambitious 630 ft span of the River Avon at Clifton, Bristol. The design he proposed included Egyptian towers, and this Egyptian theme to the project was warmly received. Brunel records that a major sponsor, William Beckford, said of this design:

He admired the (plans to the bridge) and praised strongly the architecture I had adopted - approving the Egyptian but condemning in strong terms all the others. 2

But the opinions of Beckford obviously did not win the day, and although the the Clifton Suspension Bridge was an engineering triumph, and is still taking vehicular traffic to this day, the towers were not built entirely in the Egyptian style.

As explained in the book Thoth, certain other influential characters like Mr Charles Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, had more than a passing interest in the Giza pyramids and their measurements. Smyth, like Newton, thought that the measurement systems used in the Great Pyramid had been preserved by the biblical patriarchs and had ultimately found their way into Britain. Sir John Herschel was another astronomer who was passionately in favour of the Imperial Measurement System. Sir John stood on the Standards Commission for measurements and he was central to the prevention of the metric system being adopted in 1855. Although this was a later chapter in the history of Britain's measurement systems than the railways dispute, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that other astronomers, with a similar interest to that of Sir Isaac Newton and Piazzi Smyth, were influential in measurement standardisation in the early nineteenth century.

Returning to the railway gauge dispute, there was still no particular standard gauge width in the eyes of the British law in 1835. Matters came to a head, however, when the different railway systems started to join up in 1845. A Royal Commission was duly appointed in July of that year to investigate the matter, and the legal battle for the standardisation of the British railway gauge was to be overseen by three commissioners: Sir Frederick Smith, Inspector of Railways; Peter Barlow, a Woolwich military mathematician; and (wait for it) George Biddel, the Astronomical Observer for the Greenwich Observatory. The reason for the appointment of the latter two individuals to the commission, neither of whom had any engineering experience, was rather baffling. But it has to be observed that Woolwich and Greenwich were both influenced by the Royal Navy and were within throwing distance of each other along the Thames.

The whole scenario seems uncannily like the problems that the horologer, John Harrison, had had with the same Greenwich Observatory nearly a century earlier. Harrison had invented a very accurate chronometer to measure the Earth's longitude, as an aid to maritime navigation. Meanwhile his rival, the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich, Nevil Maskelyne, was using a complicated system of Lunar observations to derive a ship's position. Quite sensibly, a competition was held to see which system was the superior, and ships sailed off, navigating with the rival systems. While competition is normally healthy, the fact was that the Astronomer Royal, Maskelyne, also sat on the commission that decided the result of the competition.

Harrison's far superior clock system was stifled and rejected by the commission at every turn, when it was obvious, even to the King, that the commission's decisions were biased and wrong. Harrison eventually got his prize, but the delay had cost decades - during which time British ships continued to flounder on unexpected shorelines and Harrison's clock design was progressively poached by others. 3 (By the way, if you find a Harrison clock in the attic, treat it with some respect as it is probably worth a few million GB pounds).


In an all too familiar fashion, the railway commission of 1845 quite sensibly devised a competition between the rival train systems to decide which of the designs was the superior. Each of the steam trains - the standard and the broad gauge - ran a route of about 50 miles carrying various loads, to see which was the faster and more reliable design. Because Brunel's broad gauge allowed a much bigger steam engine to pull the carriages; had a lower center of gravity for cornering; and larger wheels with less rolling friction; the seven-feet gauge railway produced the best results in every statistic being measured by the commission. This success was despite the fact that Brunel was using a much older engine design than the standard gauge company, whose brand-new steam engine and carriages eventually came off the narrower tracks during the trials and crashed.

Following this pitiful exhibition by the standard gauge design, and in true British tradition, the commission therefore pronounced that the smaller 4ft 8.5 inch 'standard' gauge was the superior design and should be adopted as a legal standard throughout the country! Brunel was understandably furious and, like Harrison before him, told the commission exactly what he thought of them in the local vernacular.

Thus, the first British law to ban the construction of more broad gauge railways was passed in 1846. Despite this legal statute, however, Brunel was determined to build new broad gauge railways. Brunel's title of 'engineer' belies his true status; in reality, he was Commander in Chief and he managed every last detail of the entire project. Such a character was not going to be put off by mere trifles like an Act of Parliament, so he gathered together a 'private army' of 2000 navvies and defeated the opposition at the 'Battle of Mickleton', thereeby managing to complete the Bristol to Birmingham line in the broad gauge. But economics as well as the law were now opposed to Brunel; the vast majority of lines had been built in the standard gauge - it had become the de facto standard.

But, in the light of all the above, I would respectfully suggest that it is entirely possible that Egyptian influences were really behind the invention of this standard railway gauge of 4 ft 8.5 inches:

  1. Many influential characters, like Sir Isaac Newton, really thought that the Thoth cubit from ancient Egypt was somehow a 'sacred' measurement system supplied by 'god'.
  2. These individuals also thought that the Imperial Measurements were somehow descended from these 'sacred units' and they therefore sought to include this newly discovered 'sacred' measurement system, from the Great Pyramid, into the British statutes.
  3. The newest development of the era and the next change to the statutes book was the inclusion of the new fangled 'iron road', as the Irish still call it.
  4. There are two possibilities as to how the Egyptian system was subdivided into 2.75 units for use in the railway system.
    1. The railway pioneers used the Egyptian cubit measurement system, but copied the standard Imperial Measurement's subdivision of the rod, which measures 5.5 units. A rod width of 5.5 cubits (9 ft 5 inches) would have been far too wide for a railway, whereas half a rod was just about right.
    2. Alternatively, perhaps it was already known through myth and tradition that the Egyptians had an equivalent to our rod system, and also used the 5.5 or the 2.75 cubit subdivisions in their measurements. In this case, there would have been no argument as to what measurements should be used.

I would suggest that Sir Isambard Kingdom Brunel lost his fight for a 7 ft gauge railway on purely religious grounds. Brunel came up with a far superior specification based on sound technical and engineering principles that took into account the stability of the train, the size (power) of the engine and, equally, the practicality and comfort of the carriages that would be carried.

Brunel then proved to the world in an open competition that his design was far superior to the 'standard' gauge - but his proposals were still rejected by the Royal Commission. Brunel rightly derided the authorities and politicians for their stupidity in not adopting his proposal. What Brunel probably did not understand, however, was the depth of feeling in political circles for the concept of sacred measurement systems. Had he opted for a 9 ft 5 inch gauge instead, he might have been taken more seriously. It is therefore quite probable that the dimensions of our railways were chosen purely because the width of the tracks are exactly 1/4 of the length of the Queen's Chamber in the Great Pyramid.


1. History of Rail, E Berghaus.
2. I K Brunel, L Rolt.
3. Longitude, D Sobel.


Copyright R. Ellis 
R. Ellis has asserted his rights, in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

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