Booting the foot

I got a kick out of an AP article that appeared in the Morning News on Dec. 15 titled “US finally giving boot to official foot measurement.” The US survey foot that is used by surveyors in 40 states is just a smidgen longer than the more common international foot. The survey foot will officially get the boot in 2022.

The article described a couple of problems that have occurred because of the two different measurements. The difference caused problems when planning for the high-speed rail system in California. It also caused a problem when planning the bridgework across the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. Oregon uses the international foot and Washington uses the survey foot. Although the difference between the two is only 1/8 inch per mile, this adds up over long distances, especially when precision is critical.

As I read the article I was reminded of a story I heard in the early 1960s when I was a young fellow in the Navy. A civil engineer told me about a road that was being built in the plains states. I don’t remember what states were involved, but they used the different measurements. The road was being built from different directions, and it was discovered that the ends were not going to meet. Fortunately, the problem was detected in time to make corrections without too much trouble.

Can you imagine the embarrassment when the first transcontinental railroad was being built if the Central Pacific tracks going east had ended up in Promontory, Utah, and the Union Pacific tracks going west had ended up 20 miles north in Howell?

I was also reminded of a debacle because of nonstandard time zones in the United States in the early days of railroads. The various railroads operated on whatever time zone they wanted. As a result, schedules were not standard among the various railroads. Connections could therefore not be counted on, and many wrecks occurred. The railroads really were not a safe way to travel in the early days. Our government finally adopted standard time zones throughout the country to correct the problem. It is amazing how problems with such simple solutions are often not recognized until events occur that make us wonder why we did not think of these problems beforehand.

These events seem humorous to us today, but the same things routinely happen in the design world even now as companies try to cut corners or conduct makeshift solutions in order to make more money. Reference the V.C. Summer nuclear project where prefabrication was used in the construction of units that were essentially prototypes. Many components didn’t fit.

Many of these kind of mistakes cost tons of money and sometimes lives. I wonder if we will ever learn. Not likely.