The Eccentric Engineer: The Surprising Origins of the Train

Probably fewer kids these days want a train than in the past, preferring electronic magic. Maybe model trains were never really for kids.

The first model trains are almost as old as the first trains. Indeed, the early ones were probably working models of actual engine designs, so definitely not for children.

By the 1850s, however, model trains had become a market in themselves with the arrival of the wonderfully named “Birmingham Dribblers”, more properly called “carpet railways”. These steam trains did not run on rails at all, but simply rolled on carpet, often leaving a trail of boiling water and highly flammable fuel in their wake – hence their name. Despite their flaws, they were expensive precision-engineered models, with very little intended for the average child.

As time passed and the steam train became ubiquitous, other custom-built model railways began to appear in Europe and America, often running on clockwork mechanisms. But these were also expensive. It was a German company, Märklin, which transformed the train in 1891 when it proposed a railway “system” based on standardized gauges. Märklin had been making tin toys since the late 1850s, but had always looked enviously at another sector of the market, dollhouses. A dollhouse was not a single toy but a system, with a starter kit – the house itself – that could be added to and improved upon, bringing customers back year after year.

What the company needed was an equivalent toy for boys, as few parents in the 1890s would buy a dollhouse for their son. The answer was the train – an ever-expanding miniature world of toy trains and rolling stock. Once the starter set was purchased along with the track ring and locomotive, hundreds of other items could be added, some at pocket prices.

Märklin manufactured sets in three gauges from 1¾ inches to 2½ inches between the rails. Other German manufacturers soon followed suit, realizing they could steal a piece of the Märklin pie if their toys ran on the Märklin gauge system. The toys proved a huge hit in Europe and the United States, giving German manufacturers a head start in the market. As other competitors joined the field, manufacturers innovated, offering live steam and even electric models as well as clockwork movements.

To keep costs within the range of middle-class children who were their main market, the bodywork and paintwork of these early models were often quite crude, using fine tinplate pressing and simple colored lithographic transfers. They were motors and cars, but not of any particular kind, although that hardly mattered as toys.

Image credit: Getty Images

Or did he? An exception was in the UK, where there was already a thriving model train industry, just one that was not aimed at children at all. Companies like WJ Bassett-Lowke, founded in 1898, had specialized in an entirely different type of train – large enough to actually use. These highly detailed 15-inch gauge live steam models were to be seen on public model railroads and in the gardens of aristocrats, but were far too large and expensive for the average family home.

Still, Bassett-Lowke saw an opportunity with these new German toys. Employing Henry Greenly, who had worked on full-scale locomotives, the company branched out into building more precise bodies for miniature engines built by major German manufacturers. Gone was the thin tinplate and brightly colored transfer paint, and in its place came sharp detailing and an authentic livery. The Bassett-Lowke models were miniature versions of the real thing. These were not children’s toys: they were adult working models!

As the clouds of war gathered in 1914, the market for oars looked perilous. Germany was largely unable to export to its main markets and its factories were devoted to war work. British manufacturers could not compete either. Bassett-Lowke and other precision engineering companies were also needed for war work, so for nearly a decade a train was an amazing rarity in any stocking stuffer.

When the dust of war settled, the old manufacturers returned to making toys, but German companies still struggled to export. In Britain, this was an opportunity quickly seized by, among others, Frank Hornby, who had been making engineering toys since 1901 when he patented his ‘Meccano’ building system.

With the idea of ​​a model train no longer just a colorful novelty, he began to develop clockwork, then electric, trains that combined the small scale and lower cost of old tin toys with the larger modeling precise associated with adult trains. made by people like Bassett-Lowke. This led to the 1938 launch of the famous OO gauge “Dublo” model railway. Train sets were no longer just about storing toys or treats for aristocrats. A whole miniature railway world was born. The only question was: is it for children or adults?

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