Roman Chariots, Space Shuttles, Fire Hydrants, and Lightning

Personally, I do not believe the oft-told story that the width of the solid rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle were based on the standard width of two Roman war horses. But, the story does remind us of the importance of standards, and how they affect our lives in ways that are great and small.

An old electrical engineering adage goes something like this: “Standards are great. That's why we have so many of them.” Everyone knows how convenient it is to simply insert Plug A into Socket A and have a successful mating. We also all know how frustrating it is to insert Plug A into Socket A only to find that in reality it is Socket B, with mating denied. Compounding that frustration is the fact that there are an essentially infinite number of different plugs and sockets thus allowing incompatibility to flourish.

The reality is that standardization is more than a convenience; it is often vitally important. For example, in 1904, the Great Baltimore Fire destroyed 1,500 buildings and severely damaged some 1,000 more; much of downtown Baltimore was wiped out. One reason the fire was so bad was because fire fighters from nearby cities could not hook up to Baltimore's fire hydrants; their hose couplings were incompatible. Which brings us to Apple.

It is safe to say that Apple is a maverick company; much of their excellence stems from their desire to redefine the norm, and do things their own way. The term "proprietary" comes to mind, which of course is anathema to philosophy of standards. Which brings us to the iPhone charging port.

As you probably know, iPhones use Apple's own Lighting port for charging. It is kind of like USB-C, but much like Baltimore's fire hydrants, it is different. Apparently taking a dim view of renegade electronics, the European Union's Parliament recently preliminarily voted in favor of rules that would require all electronic devices to be equipped with USB-C ports; this would include anything that is charged via a cable including, of course, iPhones.

While Apple does indeed use USB-C on some of its products, its iPhones have used Lighting for a decade. Switching to USB-C would be a big deal for the company. The EU says its rules would promote product sustainability and reduce electronic waste. Moreover, it says that a standardized charging cable would be a convenience for users, and customers would need to buy fewer chargers.

Apple says Lighting is better because, for example, it is smaller which is an advantage on small items such as AirPods. Moreover, Apple argues that obsoleting Lighting would only produce more waste. An interesting twist is that Apple has been rumored to be working on iPhones that delete any charging port and instead can only be charged wirelessly.

The European Union's new rules have not been voted on by the full Parliament, and could change, or could be voted down. If approved and implemented, the world would move one step closer to uniformity. Would that promote convenience and sustainability? Or is this simply a European swipe at an American company? You decide.

Oh — the Space Shuttle thing. This is how the story goes: The Romans built war chariots that were pulled by two horses placed side by side. The width of the horses determined the width of the chariots and thus the spacing between the wheels. The wheels formed ruts in many roads and to avoid breaking wheels, all kinds of carts were designed with this same wheel spacing. Years later, coach builders built the first railway wagons and this same Roman chariot wheel spacing determined the standard railway gauge (approximately 4 ft, 8.5 in). Many years later, the Space Shuttle's solid rocket boosters were manufactured in Utah, and had to be transported to Florida on rail cars. In particular, the boosters had to fit through railway tunnels with a width that is based on the width of standard-gauge railway cars. So, connecting the dots, the Romans designed the Space Shuttle. Yeah — I don't believe it either.

dommyluc's picture

"Oh, everything's stolen nowadays. Why the fax machine is nothing but a waffle iron with a phone attached..." - Abe Simpson

jeff-henning's picture

Dude, were you just bored and decided to write something totally off topic?

Anyway, to your point, Apple has been pushing the envelope on peripheral interface connections for a long time. Most of it it has been moving to interfaces that perform drastically better than what was currently used.

Is it annoying? Sure. But, give Dell or HP a few years and they do the exact same thing.

Since most people buy laptops instead of desk tops now a days, all you have to do is buy a plug-in that offers all the jacks you need. It costs about $50.

Again, annoying, but it's not like Apple is the only company doing this.

Apple's design esthetic has been to have the thinnest computer or phone possible. Personally, I care more about performance. A few more millimeters in thickness is of no concern to me.

Hey, at least they haven't changed the interfaces for a few years! I expect this to change soon... and then I'll have to buy a new infuse widget.

Cie la vie.