The Shiny Irons Get Small

The Shiny Irons Get Small

… modeling toy trains is a huge hobby, worthy of its own post….
When one thinks of “modeling”, the moguls of Madison Avenue would like those thoughts to be of Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell, of Ralph Lauren, of Gucci and Hilfiger and of the multi-billion dollar fashion industry. However, a simple Google search reveals a surprising factoid about the modeling industry….

Hmmm… now this is not to say that model railroading is three times more popular than runway modeling… well, actually, yes it is.
Scale model railroading is usually thought of as an aside to the larger railroad industry, however, one of the largest players on the Irons got his start building model trains. A jeweler and silversmith by trade, and an avid tinkerer by disposition, young Mathhias Baldwin would go on to found the Baldwin Locomotive Works, one of the largest industries of its time. By 1831, Baldwin ran a factory making machinery for the bookbinding industry and, to fill a need for power for his machine tools, the craftsman developed a stationary steam engine. Ever the innovator, Baldwin also developed mechanisms to provide rotary motion, and to efficiently distribute this motion to machine tools scattered throughout the factory.

This original stationary engine, constructed prior to 1830, is still in good order and carefully preserved at the Works. It has successively supplied the power in six different departments as they have been opened, from time to time, in the growth of the business.

In 1831, the Baldwin built a locomotive model for the Philadelphia Museum. Not at all a toy, this locomotive demonstrated it’s mettle by towing four model rail cars each carrying four passengers!

Beginnings of the Tiny Irons: The idea of building a miniature railroad for its own sake originated in Europe. In the 1830s, German craftsmen were building unpowered miniatures which could be pushed along a track, while the master tinsmiths of France created wonderfully ornate models which were pushed along the floor. In England, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, the toymakers took their craft to the next level. These innovators built model locomotives which had their own fireboxes, boilers and steam cylinders! Known as “dribblers” after the trail of water they left in their wake, these self-powered machines also ran on the floor. Flanges on their wheels foretold the day when tracks would be laid, but at the time, they were for show only.

America Gets Small: The market in America, a rugged and unsettled country, demanded a more durable product and models for this consumer were sturdier and heavier. Miniature industrialists Edward Ives, Joshua Lionel Cohen and William Ogden Coleman developed clockwork powered model trains which were robust enough to survive shipment across the unimproved vastness of the late 1800s American heartland, and accurate enough in execution to satisfy the demanding standards of hobbyists who were fascinated by the railroads running from town to town.

The “Gauge Wars”: Starting in the late 1800s, the “Big 3” manufacturers developed product lines and customer bases which resulted in the hobby’s rapid expansion. Although there was no standard for the “scale” of the models, it was advantageous for a manufacturer to make all of its products to the same scale. This would allow a customer to use all of that company’s models on the same layout, and several different gauges were developed. In the “full-sized” rail industry, “gauge” refers to the spacing between the rails of a track, and it is important because trains cannot run on track which is of a different gauge. In model railroading, the same caveat applies. In Europe the German Marklin company had introduced to the hobby gauges “1” through “5” at the 1891 Leipzig Toy Fair.

Relative size of some common model railroad gauges

As with the “real” railroads, the gauge referred to the distance between the rails. A few years later, Marklin introduced “0” gauge at a scale of 1” = 43.5” from full size. The Ives Company and American Flyer built models to Marklin’s “0” gauge, while at the same time, producing train sets in other gauges. Lionel initially built to a scale different from any Marklin had introduced, falling between “2” gauge and “3” gauge. Then, 1906, Lionel introduced a new gauge it labeled “Standard Gauge”, trademarking the term. The new entrant was ever-so-slightly narrower than Marklin’s “0” gauge, which many hobbyists suspect came from a flawed interpretation of Marklin’s specification. As the hobby grew and enthusiasts began creating permanent model railroad layouts, the sheer size of the equipment became an issue. A full-sized passenger car of the 1920s could be 90 feet in length, and even at 1:43.5 scale, this resulted in a model which was 2 feet long! Even a modest railroad layout could easily overwhelm the available space a hobbyist could devote. In an effort to improve the situation, industry giant Lionel introduced “027” gauge. The curves of common “0” gauge rail track had a radius of 31 inches, and Lionel designers calculated that the radius could be tightened to 27” without compromising the train’s ability to negotiate the curve. While this helped some, clearly a smaller size was needed. American Flyer experimented with “S” gauge models, and the 33% drop in size improved the situation, however the disastrous Great Depression would force the hand of the hobby. With the world economy in shambles, the cost of model railroading forced it out of reach of most hobbyists, and especially out of the grasp of the children who made up the lion’s share of the buyers.

The Tiny Irons Get Smaller: The smallest of Marklin’s scales, “0” gauge had dominated the hobby for most of the forty years it had been in existence.

Over time, the name of this scale morphed from “0” (zero) to “O” (Oh), while the term used to designate the size changed from “gauge” to “scale”. The actual measured distance between rails is not always accurately scaled from the full-sized railroad gauge, and “scale” which is a measure of the relative size of the model, is a more useful measure.

With the furious winds of the Depression raging the hobby, a cheaper alternative was needed for model railroading to survive. Response from the toymakers resulted in the models becoming smaller. From “O” scale sprang the most popular gauge today, “HO”. Literally “half O”, the scale was developed by several manufacturers simultaneously around the end of the First World War in an effort to produce a product better suited to the table-top railroad layouts hobbyists were creating. By now, all of the manufacturers were producing train sets powered by electricity. The locomotive carried a small electric motor, powered by DC current delivered by the metal rails. Household electricity, alternating current, is changed to direct current by a rectifier, and the 110 volts out of the wall is stepped down using a transformer to a level safe enough for use on the model railroad. Before the advent of computers, the transformer fed electricity to the layout, and all the trains on that layout ran at the same speed and in the same direction. Clever modelers charted exotic wiring diagrams to allow trains on different parts of the layout to run independently. Surviving the Depression and the Second World War, the hobby entered a golden age of growth.

The Tiny Irons Get Bigger: In the 1950s, model railroading began an era of serious heavy hauling. The components manufactured for the “hobbyist” began to take on a more serious patina as adults in the hobby demanded greater accuracy, more variety and an increasing level of quality. This resulted in a clear differentiation between model trains and toy trains. Though plastic had become the material of choice for the models, the execution of the molding resulted in a model which was aimed at the serious model railroad builder. In the 1960s the increasing sophistication of the models’ component parts made possible the introduction of a new scale, “N” scale. At 1:160 scale, this was almost half the size of the common “HO” scale, allowing huge, sophisticated and detailed layouts to be built in a small space. At the same time, the hobby left its house and moved into the sunlight (and into the rain!) with the introduction of “G” scale. Also called garden scale, this set the size of the models at 1:22 of full size. In “G” scale, that 90-foot passenger car we saw earlier became over 4 feet long and 8 inches tall! Hobbyists could now create layouts outdoors in yard or garden for the entertainment of guests and visitors.

Additionally, this scale proved very useful to commercial and civic enterprises as storefront layouts were used to draw shoppers into businesses, historical models graced museums and tourist attractions, and in some cases the Tiny Irons were actually used to their original transportation purpose, carrying food and drinks to patrons at restaurants and bars!

The Tiny Irons Go Digital: In the 1970s, electronics began to revolutionize society. Model railroading jumped right onto that train, first using the new technology to allow trains to operate independently on the same layout. Electronic integrated circuits had developed to the point that a microcomputer could be made small and cheap enough to fit into even a “N” scale locomotive, and this gave the model railroader the ability to program a degree of intelligence into the layout. No longer were the trains at the mercy of a simple DC input, now they had choices! The roaring pace of computing technology and computing power has only accelerated since these early days, and the model railroader has kept abreast, designing ever smarter smart-chips. The modern layout has a degree of control integration that even the full-sized railroad industry lacks. On the Tiny Irons, the dream of Positive Train Control is an active reality. Bluetooth, the supernatural wireless phenomenon which controls everything from our telephones to our traffic signals, has also invaded the small railroads. Now, the hobbyist can control an entire railroad from a computer or even from a telephone, changing timetables, routes and destinations, speeds… everything the “real” railroads can do, you can do on your kitchen table.

Regulating The Tiny Irons: Where the model railroader of the early 20th century worked alone, or with a few other hobbyists, usually local, today’s tiny train driver can avail of social media’s linkage. Additionally, many, many associations and clubs offer connectivity for the communal conductor. Founded in 1935, the National Model Railroad Association;

(NMRA) is a non-profit organization for those involved in the hobby or business of model railroading. It was founded in the United States in 1935, and is also active in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. It was previously headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, and was based in Chattanooga, Tennessee next to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (TVRM) from 1982 to 2013 and has since relocated in Soddy Daisy.

NMRA sets standards and recommended practices for the Tiny Irons, much as the Association of American Railroads does for the Shiny Irons. In addition to the tedium of sizes, speeds, voltages and frequencies necessary to the integration of the small hauling industry, the NMRA also sponsors fun stuff, including an annual National Convention.

The first convention was held in 1935 in Milwaukee and 71 mini-railroaders fellowshipped and exchanged ideas. NMRA 2017 in Orlando Florida beckons the budding modeler to the Sunshine State, but be prepared to get chummy, as 20,000 regular attendees will be there! In addition to the Big One, there are numerous regional, state and local events, hosted by the Association, by local affiliates and by independent clubs. The World’s Greatest Hobby has grown to include over half a million fans in the U.S. And Canada alone. The hobby is also thriving in Europe, the cradle of the toy train, and in most of the rest of the world as well.

Archiving The Tiny Irons: For the tourist, the casual fan, or the scholar, there are innumerable model railroading attractions worldwide. Going back to that Google search we opened with, a quick forage for “model railroad museum” nets 1.9 million hits… the Tiny Irons are a BIG industry! And, may we suggest, when you go to Orlando for that convention, or to San Diego or Minneapolis-St. Paul to take in the the local model railroad museum, or when you go to Seattle for Model Railroad Weekend, take the train!!

… ’cause that’ll help keep the rails shiny!! Thank you for joining us!

Doctors on Steel Wheels

The 1993 television drama Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman featured Jane Seymore as a 19th century physician serving the frontier town of Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1867. As was the case in most of the American west, Quinn operated a very primitive facility. As was also the case in that era and locale… she arrived on the train.

The same scenarios pervade much of the third world in this 21st century and, in many cases, the medical care available to people in these unimproved areas arrives on the Shiny Irons. An outgrowth of the medical trains used to treat wounded soldiers as far back as the Crimean War, the hospital trains carry doctors, nurses, medical supplies and equipment to rural and deprived areas around the world. One of the first to operate is the Lifeline Express of India. Created by the Impact India Foundation, a non-governmental organization, the Express is a showcase of modern medical care on wheels, carrying a fully equipped surgical hospital and clinic to parts of India which otherwise would be hundreds of inaccessible kilometers from the most basic health care. Now 25 years young, the Express has brought medicine to almost a million rural Indians. As an N.G.O., Impact India has been able to extend to other nations its knowledge, experience and innovative technology, enabling China and Central Africa to set up similar services. Thinking outside the Irons, the volunteers of Impact India set up the same type of hospitals on river boats serving the rural areas of Cambodia and Bangladesh.

In the frozen wastes of Russian Siberia, the doctor is in, as the Matvei Mudrov carries medical care on the Irons of Mercy. Named for an 18th century medical doctor who helped found the first Russian clinical school, the train carries a fully equipped hospital into the frozen north of Russia. Running on the Baikal-Amur Main Line, the train can take detours on other spur route as need arises. One of these outriggers of the Icy Irons, the Amur-Yakutsk Main Line, runs to the coldest major city on earth, Yakutsk, Sakha Republic, Russia.

At the bottom of the world, the Phelophepa Mission in South Africa brings basic health care to rural people all over the Cape;

the Phelophepa has grown from three cars to an impressive 18-car train delivering primary health care, education and outreach programs including: HIV/AIDS education. Additional services include training community volunteers in basic healthcare and screening/educating local schoolchildren.

The Train of Hope first rolled in 1994 and in the years since, an estimated 14.5 million people have been reached through its school, screening, health education and counseling workshops and through its outreach programs.

Through the dedication of volunteer medical staff, these trains haul hope to millions in the far reaches. The skill and commitment of the sawbones is useless unless the trains run, and run on time… and run in some of the worst places the Irons have been laid. Mission critical is the skill and commitment of volunteer train operators, operations personnel and logistics personnel to get the doctors to the patients, and the dedication and experience of volunteer mechanics and maintenance personnel, to keep the wheels turning!

Play a Train Song

The railroader’s lament, Hedy West is leavin’ on that train… “500 miles”, the folk song for which she is best known

from her eponymous 1963 album

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