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The Piemen of Erie

An interesting historical anecdote to relate, from our nation’s industrial adolescence, a tale with relevance today when we discuss standards.

The year was 1853 and the place was Erie, Pennsylvania, a town at the junction of two incompatible rail gauges. This gauge incompatibility was inefficient and frustrating, but the citizens of Erie loved it, and resisted every attempt to join the emerging common standard gauge in what would be called the Erie Gauge Wars. Why? Let’s find out more in the words of industrialist and historian James Ford Rhodes from a passage quoted in extenso from his 1895 History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the McKinley-Bryan Campaign of 1896 (Vol III Pages 18-23). I will follow this by some additional thoughts.

For the prosperity of 1846-57 there were several contributing causes, either special to that period, or then for the first time effective. The greatest of these (whose influence, continuing with ever-increasing momentum to our own day, is still transcendent, and will pervade the future to a degree to which no philosopher can now set bounds) were railroad transportation, beginning its first great era, and the coming into general use of the electric telegraph. We may mark the year 1849 as the commencement of railroad extension. Having less than 6,000 miles January 1, 1849, the country had at the end of 1860 30,635 miles. In 1850 it was impossible to go by direct railway from New York to either Albany or Boston; in 1860 New York had continuous lines reaching beyond the Mississippi. In 1850 Chicago had one short road; in 1860 that city was a great railroad center, her main lines “reaching hundreds of miles — east, west, north, south. In 1850, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois were open fields; in 1860 they were crossed and recrossed many times.” “I arrived here last night,” wrote Emerson from Pittsburgh in 1851, “after a very tedious and disagreeable journey from Philadelphia, by railway and canal, with little food and less sleep; two nights being spent in the rail-cars, and the third on the floor of a canal-boat.” Not until the end of 1860 did the railway system between the East and the West approach unification and give promise of that consolidation of separate railroads and branches into systems which in our own day has characterized this development.

The primitive ideas in regard to railway travel prevailing in the decade of 1850-60, are well illustrated by what was then known as the Erie Railroad War. The traveler who goes from New York to Chicago in our day is not obliged to set foot from his train, for he is provided with the comforts and conveniences of a hotel. Far different was it in 1853. The traveler could, indeed, then go from New York to Albany in four hours; but there he must change to another road and another train which carried him from Albany to Buffalo, and he esteemed himself fortunate to be able to cover so great a distance in the same car. If he made the western connection at Buffalo it was considered good-luck. The tales of those days are full of complaints of trains behind time, of connections missed, of tedious delays. From Buffalo the traveler had a short run to the station on the line between New York and Pennsylvania, called State Line, where, on account of a difference in gauge, a transfer was necessary. On the broader gauge he could travel twenty miles to Erie, Pa., when he must change again to a road of the Ohio gauge. The train on this railroad carried him to Cleveland; but on the way, if at all late, he was subject again to the anxiety of missing connections. At Cleveland he must hurry to the river, where a scow, carrying at most a dozen passengers and sculled by a weather-beaten mariner, was used as a ferry to take passengers to the Toledo railroad station. In this open boat travelers suffered from exposure to rain and snow; at times the waves ran high and the crossing was attended with danger. If the eastern train was crowded or a few minutes late, haste was necessary to secure passage in the first trip of the scow, for it was well known that the Toledo train started on schedule time and waited for neither train nor boat. At Toledo the traveler made the last change, and — if not more than five minutes behind time — found the Michigan Southern train awaiting him; otherwise he had a tedious delay, which, if his arrival at Toledo happened on a Saturday, might extend to thirty-six hours. The traveler from New York who missed no connections and arrived at Chicago on time had a marvelous story to tell.

The railroad managers of the lines between Buffalo and Erie, eager to improve their route, decided to alter the six-foot gauge of the railway between State Line and Erie to four feet ten inches — the gauge of the roads east of State Line and west of Erie — so that passengers could go from Buffalo to Cleveland without change. The railroad ran a distance through the streets of Erie. The Erie municipal authorities refused to give a permit for making the alteration unless the railway company would agree to stipulations to which its directors, considering them unreasonable, declined to accede. In the contest which followed, a color of law and reason was given to the position taken by Erie; but no one was deceived as to the real ground of the trouble. Erie objected to the change of gauge because the transfer of passengers and freight was deemed important to the borough’s prosperity. The wait involved brought custom to her eating-houses; the transfer of freight and live-stock gave work to her people. The populace ignored the legal points and the pretended grounds of demur, but they keenly appreciated the vital objection.

On December 7, 1853, the railroad company began at State Line the work of changing the gauge. The news came quickly to Erie. A cannon was fired to call out the citizens. A large mob assembled, tore up the track, and cut down the railroad bridge in the borough. The infection spread to Harbor Creek, a Pennsylvania town seven miles east of Erie, and that evening its citizens held an orderly meeting and resolved to remove the track of the railroad running on the public highway. The resolution was the next day carried into effect. Two days later (December 10) the track of the new gauge was completed to the borough limits of Erie. That night rioters at Harbor Creek tore up the track, destroyed the bridge, and ploughed up part of the grade of the road. War had begun in earnest. The mayor and the sheriff at times directed the mob, while the local militia, arrayed for service, swelled its number. Even the governor of the commonwealth seemed to sympathize with the Erie people. Certainly they had the sentiment of the whole of Pennsylvania on their side. The United States Circuit Court then granted an injunction restraining all persons from interfering with the railroad company. An Erie justice of the peace pronounced the injunction null and void, and the populace, believing the later decision to be the better law, refused to respect the order of the court. Two days after Christmas, the Harbor Creek bridge was torn down for the fourth time.

The contest attracted the attention of the country. In Buffalo the excitement was intense. Cincinnati held an indignation meeting presided over by Thomas Corwin, to protest against the conduct of the Erie citizens. The New York Tribune said: “Let Erie be avoided by all travelers until grass shall grow in her streets, and till her piemen in despair shall move away to some other city.” The press of Philadelphia espoused the cause of Erie. The City of Brotherly Love held a large public meeting to express sympathy with the borough at the other end of the commonwealth. It was declared that “the only protection Erie has to prevent her own ruin is to require the break to be made within her boundaries.”

About this time Horace Greeley had occasion to go West. He wrote to his newspaper that he was obliged to ride the seven miles from Harbor Creek to Erie in an open sleigh “through a cutting storm of wind, snow, and sleet…. Let Erie have her way,” he continued,” and all passengers and freight must change cars before her pie-shops…. The whole world is to be taxed, as in the days of Caesar Augustus, in order that Erie may clutch a sixpence for every dollar of expense she imposes on others. Is it strange that so mean and selfish an exaction should be enforced by mobs, arson, devastation, and ostentatious defiance of judicial mandates?”

With the new year the excitement grew. The Erie people became vindictive. They warned the president and director of the railroad company, living at Erie, to leave the borough. Women joined the rioters and assisted in the work of destruction of the bridges. The New York Tribune called upon President Pierce to interfere, and suggested that he issue a proclamation and call out troops in order that the laws might be executed. “Had a runaway negro,” this journal said, “been somehow mixed up with the matter, we should have had half of the United States army in Erie a month ago.” The trouble brought into view the rivalry between New York and Philadelphia, between New York State and Pennsylvania. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was declared an accomplice with the Erie rioters and bridge-burners, for the purpose of diverting business from the West to the seaboard through her territory and to her port by a projected line from Erie to Philadelphia, and an appeal was made to the West to frustrate her purpose. It is possible that the sentiment of the West had some influence in bringing about a settlement; but in the early part of January, 1854, the minds of Northern men became engrossed with the proposed repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and the Erie war ceased to attract attention. An act of the Pennsylvania legislature, by a fair compromise, brought the trouble to an end. The railroad company, having consented to confer certain desired advantages upon Erie and Pennsylvania, was allowed to complete the change of gauge and run its trains through Erie without molestation.

So, what do we have here? Two, incompatible standards meet in Erie. Maintaining the two standards is wasteful, inefficient and expensive to the railroad owners, and causes great inconvenience to the travelers who pass through Erie. Everyone knows this. However, the shopkeepers and laborers of Erie benefit from directly from these circumstances. This situation is common. We don’t all benefit from the same things. Some people benefit from other people’s misfortune. War is good for arms dealers. Hurricanes are good for the glazier. Tuberculosis is good for the undertakers. And two incompatible rail gauges are good for those whose livelihood depends on jobs manually loading and unloading goods at the junction, or providing refreshments to those who must wait for connecting trains. In any change, there are winners and losers, those who benefit from maintaining the status quo, no matter how inefficient it is, and those who will benefit from change.

So what do you do? Choose a commercial interest? Line up behind either the rail barons or the teamsters? Not necessarily. In the end the competing commercial interests don’t amount to a hill of beans compared to the interests of the travelers, the consumers and the public at large. They are the ones who were absorbing the cost of maintaining two rail gauges, in shipping costs and frustration, and they are the ones who benefited from the convergence on a single standard. Sure there were two commercial interests vying for supremacy, but there was also a choice that was clearly better for the public.

So whenever anyone tells you that two office document format standards is a good idea, that plugins and convertors can deal with shuffling data back and forth between two formats, ask yourself some basic questions:

  1. Who benefits from having two standards? Who are the “pieman of Erie” that will make money off of the inefficiency that results?
  2. Who has the most to lose if Erie becomes just another railroad town, one of many?
  3. How far will the piemen of Erie go to protect their monopoly? What technological advances and innovations will they prevent or actively destroy in order to preserve their exclusive access to their customers?
  4. And most important, what about the interests of the public at large? What is good policy?

If Microsoft were fighting the Erie Gauge War, they would portray it as a fight between the good townspeople of Erie and the rail barons. The big bad mean old rail barons are forcing their single gauge standard on people who don’t want it. Why not give them the choice of gauges? Only the old broad gauge is 100% backwards compatible with the cars that were designed for it. In fact legislation should be passed for force all railroad towns to support both gauges so everyone can have the choice. Piemen of the word, unite !

That is the distortion you get if you look at a standards war through the narrow blinders of commercial interest. But if you look at the full market impact, the simple economics of it, it becomes a lot clearer. What brings greater efficiency, greater fidelity, greater innovation and lower costs? Having two incompatible document format standards? Or having a single harmonized document format standard? Fighting against economics is like fighting against gravity or the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. You are going to lose in the end. The piemen of Erie, and their modern counterparts, are on the wrong side of economics, and history,

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Anonymous 2008/01/02, 8:44 pm

    > Piemen of the word, unite !

    Dyslexics of the world, untie! :-)

  • Anonymous 2008/01/02, 10:22 pm

    I love this analogy, it seems to make so much sense unless you stop and think about it for about 8 seconds.

    While it is impossible to run a train from gauge it gauge it is trivial to run data from one file format to another and we have been doing just that for as long as we have been practicing computer science.

    The general theme of anybody bringing this analogy up in public generally runs to a next step of waving an international electrical plug converter in the air talking about the lunacy of different countries socket and electrical standards, stating that it makes it almost impossible to travel with a laptop.

  • Rob 2008/01/02, 11:51 pm


    It is not impossible to run a train from one gauge to another. It has been done before, with specially designed trains, in particular by the Germans when preparing to invade Russia. But it is not as cost-effective as having a single gauge.

    Ditto for file formats. You could convert if needed, but it will never be as efficient in terms of fidelity or runtime resources, as having a single common file format.

    I’ve been meaning to do a blog post to address that topic, since there are some common misconceptions. So thanks for the reminder that there is still a need for elucidation on that topic.

    Maybe I can get 8 more seconds of your brain on that post as well?

  • Nate 2008/01/03, 7:18 am

    No one cares about moving the TRAIN from gauge to gauge. They care about moving the CARGO. And that’s why the piemen of Erie were commercially interested in the maintenance of two rail standards.

    “it is trivial to run data from one file format to another”

    No it isn’t. Look at Microsoft’s own decision to drop file formats with Office 2003 SP3 for boneheaded obvious evidence that running data from one file format to another actually has a cost — one that MS has decided is too great to carry.

    I wonder if this anonymous person is the same one who believes that editing the registry is also a trivial matter for end-users?

  • Anonymous 2008/01/03, 8:15 am

    Not exactly a commercial only problem.

    Here in “academia” we face the same problem. We are doing Brain Imaging with MR. We are slightly more advanced in the sense that we have a “container file format” that can be adapted to contain anything we need for our analysis.

    Unfortunately, squabbling among different research groups means rather than simplify things, it is a container for all things. A lot of group specific stuff went in, for example, two different ways of specifying rigid-body transformation matrix. Sounds familiar? Yes, it is like those “deprecated” features in OOXML, only different is it is not deprecated but part of the standard. Important things, such as timing and slice acquisition orders are optional, and we STILL have the problem figuring out which is the left side.

    Why these problems? As you said “some will benefit from others misfortune” and nobody wants to be the misfortune one. Nobody wants to modify their existing software to the other “transformation parameter”. Nobody wants to be the one who have to flip their images to fit the convention. Hence, the compromise is that you can do everything you want in the file format.

    In the end, we have insufficient progress to achieve the ultimate goal of able shift data from one application to another. Why? like OOXML, the data is ill-defined.

  • Ben Langhinrichs 2008/01/03, 9:15 am

    I like the idea that “it is trivial to run data from one file format to another”. It may be trivial to describe it, but it is certainly non-trivial to accomplish it. Translation between different formats is somewhat like translation between different languages. It may be easier to go from Italian to Spanish than from Chinese to French, but there is always data loss, which is why so many developers in so many countries request that documentation be produced in the original language rather than be translated and lose meaning. Even “good” translation between file formats tends to lead to loss of fidelity, nuance or context, and sometimes all three. If you don’t believe Rob about this, go look at the records of the people writing to ODF/OOXML translator that Microsoft likes to talk about all the time. They have run into a number of features that they can’t figure out how to translate. It doesn’t even matter whether you blame ODF or OOXML for the differences, they are differences all the same, which is Rob’s point.

  • Chris Ward 2008/01/03, 5:22 pm

    In the UK, we’re all one gauge (now … two gauges lasted until 1870 or so) so there are no Piemen.

    However, the ‘value’ has moved along the value chain. It’s sitting with those who devise the pricing structure for rail fares. If you can book your rail travel 12 weeks in advance, and travel after 10.30, then you can usually get an 80% discount.

    The complexity of the ticket prices is such that nobody understands it.

    Here’s the latest twist BBC on train fares . We have ‘regulated’ fares, and ‘unregulated’ fares.

    “These fare spikes are bad for people and bad for the environment.” — well, maybe. Or maybe just a different kind of pieman ?

  • nksingh 2008/01/04, 4:07 pm

    Okay… we should have only one gauge for the trains, right? So which one would you pick, the gauge used by the gossamer network of short rail lines that together don’t add up to even 10% of the extant rail network, or the gauge used by the Union Pacific, which by itself has at least 70% of the rail lines out there.

    Both of them are more or less easy to produce. Many of the smaller gossamer players already have trains running on the defacto standard lines. There might need to be some upgrades and changes to the wheels of third-party locomotives to put up with new standards imposed by the government (ISO) and Union Pacific, but that is far less costly to the whole world than ripping up and replacing all those extant rail lines. Are the Erie Piemakers of the ODF movement that sure of their own interests that they would be willing to impose huge transition costs on the whole world just to spite the Union Pacific? Is it worth rebuilding all those locomotives and freight cars rather than just changing a few wheels and extending what we’ve got, even though it was originally produced at Union Pacific?

  • Victor 2008/01/04, 6:20 pm

    Convertors. Ah, the omnipotent converters.

    Actually it’s irrelevant if they work perfectly or not.

    How come ?

    It’s easy: either “it is trivial to run data from one file format to another” or it’s “not trivial to do”. In the first case the easy solution is to keep all public documents in one format (ODF since it’s already standardized) and convert to OOXML on as-needed basis. In the last case problems are quite real, conversion tax is real and two standards will incur “conversion tax” – forever. Thus OOXML is unneeded too.

    The real solution is to produce some mix of ODF and OOXML (if it’s needed), but to have two competing standards in counterintuitive and stupid.

  • Rob 2008/01/05, 1:22 pm


    Historically they did in fact change thousands of miles of train tracks, especially to integrate the South. On May 31st, 1886 thousands of workers in the South adjusted their tracks by 3″ lining up with the Northern gauge. Eleven-thousand miles of tracks were converted in just thirty-six hours.

    As for choosing a document format, I’d take the long term view of it. The future is a lot bigger than the past. Sure we have a lot of old documents, but we’ll have even more documents created in the next 10 years than we have accumulated in all of our digital past.

    If track gauges different only in measurement, then of course you would go with the predominant one, all else being equal. But what if one gauge offered greater choice of vendors, including vendors who offered products and services at a lower price, and their gauge was more efficient, required less fuel, and that products that worked with that gauge used off-the-shelf parts and used technologies that were more familiar to the engineers coming out of school? Then you might make a different choice.

    It is bad business and bad economics to let sunk costs rule decision making.

  • Luc Bollen 2008/01/05, 9:52 pm

    @nksingh: “Many of the smaller gossamer players already have trains running on the defacto standard lines.”

    Speaking about office documents, everybody is abandoning the existing _defacto standard formats_ (the binary ones)! Microsoft pushes to replace them by OOXML, while most other vendors push to replace them by ODF.

    But in any case, everybody agrees that the existing defacto formats have to be changed…

    The cost of changing the “existing lines” will have to be paid. But you have the choice between a looking-forward approach or a looking-backward approach. And in the long run the backward approach (OOXML) will be more costly for everybody, but more profitable for Microsoft…

  • Anonymous 2008/01/07, 2:39 am

    This story reminds me of the EU attempt to standardize power plugs. Over time, every country tried to protect their electical appliance industry by inventing a special, incompatible power plug. Inconvenient and expensive.

    By the time the EU tried to harmonize the plugs, the Germans dominated the continental economy and most continental countries could accomodate the German type plugs (Schuko). Obviously, the intended standard (IEC 60906-1) could be used with the continental sockets and plugs with little fuss. But NOT with the rather bulky UK BS 1363 plugs.

    Predictably, the BS1363 countries were extremely unhappy. So the UK refused to accept the IEC 60906-1 standard. They would only go for a completely NEW standard that would be equally inconvenient to all countries. Of course, nothing really happened in the end.

    One problem that cannot be handled by the plug standard is the difference in wiring. UK homes mainly seem to have ring wires with high current 32 A fuses. Continental homes generally have star wiring with (10?) 16 A fuses. As a result, each BS1363 plug needs a seperate fuse for safety. This is not necessary in continental plugs.


  • Brij Bhushan VIJ 2010/07/19, 4:14 pm

    I have been associated with USMA since 1985-86, when I first visited US to promote my ideals of Metrication (Time, Length & Calendar inclusive). I still observe and note that US engineers & industry is still struggling between *decimal usage of Units & Quantities and Units that I advocate as belong to the SI Metric Units i.e. when related to Length Unit METRE in Le Systeme International d’Unites.*
    This does surprise me that USA who were among the first signatory for ‘Convention du Metre’ have yet to establish themselves as the World Leading nation to adopt and link: Time, Arc-length and Calendar’ -establishing a link between customary units, used and the units that relate to&with the Metre – to belong to the SI Metric world. My attempts on Time & calendar with “several formats that I produced since 1971…..and now are placed at my Home Page: http://www.brijvij.com/. I have remained with USMA & Calndr-L experts discussing and pointing the need for world adoption of ONE system of SI (Metric) Units and corrections that can be applied to Modified Grgorian Calendar to be useful to all nations on Planet Earth. I point the following lines for ‘comparision and review’ of calendar case at United Nations:
    “I am sending the link ‘expressing’ the need for a case to modify the Gregorian calendar, at minimal or NO costs and get a calendar for World – an attempt that has been evading solutions at United Nations regading Reform of the Gregorian calendar used all over for International use & obligations in Descending Order Date & Time Representation for Time of the Day and ‘Decimalisation of Time of the Hour-minute-second when linked to Arc-Angle (degree-minute-second)’. Please see: http://www.brijvij.com/bb_INSAcontri.pdf and http://www.brijvij.com/bb_metro-contrbn.2007.pdf.
    I am aware unless a comparision was drawn between various calendars, used or proposed, limitations of the Gregorian calendar shall prevail. In this attempt, I have tried to compare the format of calendar proposed by theWorldCalendar Organisation -Internationl, and placed at: http://brijvij.com/bb_comparative-study.pdf, making my case needy and acceptable, as I view!”
    Please feel free to write to me if there is a need for further elucidation of any points that you may have for the benefit of human race!
    My regards to one and all,
    Brij Bhushan Vij , Author 20100719H16:17(decimal)

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