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On Rocket Ships and Horses’ Asses: Where Did Your Content Standards Come From?

If the internet is good for anything, it’s at least good for continuing the age-old tradition of moralistic fables; stories that may or may not be true but which, at their core, contain some granular principle we can use as a teachable moment. One of these fables (or “memes” as the cool kids call them, perhaps somewhat oblivious to Richard Dawkins’ considerably more complicated theory of this concept) is the story of how the size of NASA’s booster rockets is constrained by the size of a horse’s ass. There’s a link to a full version of the story here, but I’ll summarize it in the reverse order from the one in which it’s usually presented to make the chain of causation more clear.


  1. The first roads in Europe were rutted paths carved out by Roman war chariots, which determined the standard for any other type of wheeled vehicle that wanted to use those paths. The wheel width of those chariots was constrained by the width of the two horses required to pull them.
  2. The first railways in the 19th century were built by the same engineers who built wagons, and those wagons still used the specifications laid out by the ancient Roman chariots. The gauge for the width of the tracks was determined by the typical width of the wagons that could traverse those ancient Roman paths, which were now the standard.
  3. The first American railways were created by English engineers, who used the same gauge for American rail tracks as they did for English ones.
  4. When NASA designed the booster rockets for the space program, the rockets were assembled in Utah and transported by rail to Florida for launch. Since the rockets had to fit on the existing rail cars, the design of the rocket was constrained by the width of the rail tracks, which in turn had been historically constrained, in a long chain of causation, by the “specs” of ancient Roman horses.

Space Shuttle In The CloudsIs this story true? Probably not in every detail. My suspicion is that it probably falls apart somewhere around the idea of the gauge for the tracks having been derived from Roman chariots (the gap of nearly two millennia raises my suspicions on that front). However, the reason it seems to ring true is because it seems so distinctly plausible.

The principle we can take from this story is that it’s foolish to be constrained by something that doesn’t really apply anymore. The world is full of examples like this. UX designers for the more popular e-readers, for example, know very well that designing e-books doesn’t need to be constrained by the limitations of producing physical books. Today’s best e-books are magnificent meta-documents designed to be read in a variety of ways and which can link to information both within and outside of the book itself. While we still call them “books,” the best e-books have broken the constraint imposed by traditional book publishing to become an entirely different type of information repository.

What does this mean in the world of content standards and documentation? Think for a moment of how you define “document.” Most enterprises would probably agree on the OED definition of “A piece of written, printed, or electronic matter that provides information or evidence or that serves as an official record,” a definition that dates back to the Middle Ages and derives from both documentum for “lesson” or “proof” and docere for “to teach.” This antiquated definition of “document” is the reason many enterprises are still swimming in paper forms, manual processes, and endless PDFs. But what about a 21st century definition? Robert J. Glushko and Tim McGrath, in their magisterial book “Document Engineering,” provide a definition of “document” as “a purposeful and self-contained collection of information,” and identify a spectrum of document types that moves from the narrative (the traditional definition of document) to the transactional (information that facilitates a relationship between two parties). Glushko and McGrath push us to bring our documentation into the 21st century, not to live in the Middle Ages.

21st century documents need a content standard that can facilitate, not hinder, these relationships. As Glushko and McGrath point out, the content standards of today’s documents must be constrained by requirements that allow for

  • maximum utility
  • unimpeded communication, and
  • universal accessibility.

While the traditional house style guide does some of this, it doesn’t provide the writer with the structural, semantic, or presentation standards that determine the usability of today’s documents. Without a rigorous and regulated content standard, today’s writers are in a position that is little better than that of the medieval scribe hunched over his copying work, whose content standards are dictated by the limited communications channels of the world in which he lives and the physical constraints of the parchment on which he writes.

Where did your content standards come from? Are you working in the modern world? Or is your content and documentation constrained by medieval standards because that’s the way it’s always been done? Horses haven’t changed much in 2,000 years, but if your content is following a similar path, you need to stop horses’ asses from dictating your standards.


Glushko, Robert J. and Tim McGrath. Document Engineering: Analyzing and Designing Documents for Business Informatics and Web Services. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005.

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