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Model Railroad History - The Progress Of Model Trains and Railroading

The history of model railroading dates back almost as far as the railroads themselves. Indeed some of the early locomotive models were made as promotional items for the early railroads.

It is believed the first model train came into existence in the late 1800’s. The early trains were made of metal and had clockwork wind-up mechanisms, and some were even powered by steam. They were considered “toys for the rich” as they were relatively expensive. During the Victorian period there were live steam engine models (and they were expensive for the time); there were also many simple pull-along trains (many were made in wood); and there were tin and lead clockwork engines. The various types were generally used on the floor, or on a basic home-made track. You couldn’t just go out and purchase train track like you can today.

The early models were made in Germany, with production spreading to Britain and France. Many of the early US made models were manufactured with cast iron rather than using tinplate. The first US made Lionel train appeared as a store window display model in 1901.

Electricity to homes was not as common as it is today, so the invention of electrically powered model trains didn’t happen for several years.

More affordable mass-produced model trains came into being during the 1920’s. The standard of the models improved somewhat over time and the level of detailing became more accurate and life like.

Many early electric trains operated with 3 rails. This was because of wheel insulation problems in the age before plastic came in being. This compares with modern 2-rail trains that have plastic to insulate the each wheel from another.

HO Scale and OO Gauge Trains

The 1930’s saw the introduction of HO scale and OO gauge trains which resulted in an upswing in popularity of the hobby.

German manufacturer Marklin became well known for its range of trains, but WWII brought about changes. Not only did toy production stop, but the end of the war saw the rise of other model train manufacturers such as Hornby in Britain and JEP in France. For a time, Germany couldn’t export to its major markets, and that gave the local toy industries the opportunity to develop and expand.

The same thing happened in the USA where the curtailment of German manufactured toys gave local manufacturers the chance to dominate the US market. Lionel, American Flyer and Ives were able to win the hearts and minds of boys (and Dads) across the country.

Compared to the USA, manufacturing in Britain and Europe took longer to re-establish after the war. America didn’t suffer the physical damage to buildings and factories like Britain did. Whilst Britain focused on production of OO gauge trains, US manufacturers concentrated on the mass production of HO scale trains (many with added features like smoke and action cars). S scale 1:64 trains were some of the earliest and date back to 1896, and had a resurgence in the 1950's.

Toy trains became very popular during the 1950’s with many Dads taking considerable interest. This is perhaps the point where the separation started from playing with “toy trains” into “operating realistic scale trains as a hobby.” However, it wasn’t really until later years that the hobby of model railroading really developed and became more sophisticated.

The sixties, seventies, and eighties witnessed many changes with the rise and fall of several manufacturers. Toy trains went out of fashion, but the hobby of model railroading carved out a loyal following. O scale trains continued to be reasonably popular in the US, but failed to gain the same popularity in the UK. HO scale remained the most popular scale worldwide, with OO leading the field in the UK market.

N scale, Z scale, G Scale, and Tiny T Gauge Model Trains

Smaller 1:160 N scale trains came into being in 1962; the big 1:22 G scale garden trains came on the scene in 1968 (and continue to be popular in the US today); and the tiny 1:220 Z scale trains came into being in 1972. Z scale is around half the size of N scale, and the T gauge trains from Japan introduced in 2007 are about half the sizing of Z scale. That’s really tiny!!

DCC Changes The Way Model Railroads Operate

The 1980’s saw digital technology introduced and DCC (Digital Command Control) came into being. This invention brought about a major change in the way model railroads could operate. It gave railroaders the option to operate several trains on the one track and to add realistic sounds and other features to their railroad. DCC works with any scale or gauge and for many the system simplified wiring and operations. It meant that operators could move around their layout without being stuck in front of their train control panel. Wireless operation gave operators “walk-around” control. Blocking is not required with DCC so it became possible to operate more trains in a smaller space.

JMRI Controls Model Trains From A Computer, Tablet, or a Smart Phone

Then, more recently and after a protracted legal battle, JMRI (Java Model Railroad Interface) got started. It is basically a system that allows model trains to be operated from a computer, a tablet, or a smart-phone. With these devices so prevalent these days, the future for JMRI technology is likely to revolutionize the hobby as time goes on. It also has the potential to attract many young folk to the hobby as they are typically the one’s who are most at ease with new technologies.

The future looks bright for model railroading, and hopefully many of us “oldies” will embrace change and encourage the younger generation into the hobby.

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