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Two days in May, 11,500 miles of track

It was May 31, 1886 that a two day rail gauge conformance effort began. Southern railroads changed the distance between the rails from five feet to four feet nine in order to be compatible with the Pennsylvania Railroad. PrawfsBlawg suggests Happy Uniform Gauge Day! How a 3-inch nudge destroyed American federalism.

Today is the 134th anniversary of one of our most important yet most unrecognized constitutional events: On May 31st, 1886, the operators of Southern railroads began their famous two-day conversion of all southern railroad tracks

Check the link for the story. This was just one very big step towards conformity to enhance and enable commerce. The problem was widespread. “In 1871 no less than 23 different gauges existed in the United States, ranging in width from three to six feet.”

We face similar standards development processes today. Since computing technology has become a consumer good and service, protocols for communications, data storage, and service descriptions have followed the railroad gauge uniformity history. Back in the eighties, there were many different ways of connecting computers together both in terms of the wires and also in terms of the methods. Now the methods are overwhelmingly TCP/IP and the wire is twisted pair ethernet. The process continues in the wireless regime, however, as cell phones and wifi and other approaches compete.

There will always be custom solutions for niche markets but the economic advantages of standardization are usually overwhelming. From Cargo containers to rail gauges to electrical power delivery to clothing sizes, much of our prosperity comes from being able to talk a common language and share products and services easily.

As to whether this standardization and conformity is a attack on federalism, I don’t know. I think Rick has headed out to hyperbole, with the title of his post. States, towns, and counties still exist and have not been shoved off the map. They can just communicate better and profit more from each other’s efforts.

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