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
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
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
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
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
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
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