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Model railroading


My father and I did do some things together, and one of them was model railroading. Historically, MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club in Building 20 was a crucible of the computing revolution, since it was one of the few places where MIT students could build and design electronic projects without having to turn in a lab report for it, but I was just a kid at that time: I liked the clickety-clackety sound from the heavy-metal American Flyer locomotives chuffing round the tinplate track; I liked the ozone smell from thrown switches; and my father and I liked to turn out the lights and see glowing red and green lights of the signals, the white lights of the engine headlamps, the warm yellow glow of the caboose--and the occasional sharp blue spark. Running "the trains" through their circular courses gave me (at least) a timeless, comforting feeling.

So, almost forty years on, I've come home to the model railroading magazines I read through my teens, and it's interesting to see what's changed:

These magazines--not musty, Westcott used excellent stock--portray a vanished world, and I'm filled with regret at its passing. Because when I read the Model Railroader (MR) of today, it seems like, well, today. All the little changes that we've seen over the last forty years--everything that the winger billionaires have put into place since the 1970s--spring into sharp relief.

One obvious change is the language: Model Railroader's editor of that time, Linn Westcott, quite unself-consciously refers to his readership as "men." Another obvious change is the sheer time these men had--a Westcott-esque sentence--to devote to their hobby: Hundreds, thousands of hours, with wives who work only at home and bring coffee and Danish down to the basement. And money went a lot farther: You could buy a model of a steam locomotive, beautifully crafted in brass and imported from Japan by Pacific Fast Mail, for well under $100, though some of the articulateds ("Big Boy," "Challenger") went for a good deal more.

And technically, the changes are all to the good. The TMRC computing promise has been realized in locomotives that are digitally controlled with remotes and play "real" sounds; and the baseline for "detail" in the models has risen dramatically.

And yet...

Pacific Fast Mail isn't on the back cover any more. There aren't any more brass engines that ordinary model railroaders can buy; we can't afford to make them anymore, and the ones that were made have vanished into the vaults of collectors. Today, all the engines are plastic: Beautifully detailed. But petroleum-based.

MR has always featured images of their men staff building their railroads: Hammering, sawing, soldering, painting, wiring. But in today's MR, the men wear golf shirts with corporate logos.

Model railroaders have always equated detail with realism; with fidelity to a prototype. (John Allen, who invented the idea of "weathering" models, was a prime exponent of this ethic.) But now.... I don't know why it is, but the photographs in today's MR have an airbrushed, pornographic sheen to them. The detail is there, but somehow the images have acquired an eerie, kitschy intensity, like a Thomas Kinkade painting. Somehow, the hobby has transitioned from building models to creating collectibles, and it shows.

Once, the point was to build the railroad. Design the layout, lay down the track, add the scenery, build the buildings, choose the locomotives and the rolling stock. Cut the wood, glue the plastic, solder the wires, assemble the kits.

But today, at least for many, the point isn't building: It's having. There are businesses that will build your "dream" model railroad for you, for a price--and who was the time these days?

And then, these collectible railroads are featured in MR.

Since when did Model Railroader give a railroad a spread because somebody owned it?

It didn't used to be that way.

John Allen must be turning in his grave.

My father, too.

NOTE The image is of the great John Allen's Monterey railroad, The Gorre and Daphetid (try pronouncing it). Allen died in 1973, as did so much else, and the G&D was destroyed in a fire shortly after.

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Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

I've kept a low level interest in model railroading since I was a child (my grandfather would let me operate his American Flyer set). I have a small layout, again, as my 8 year old daughter enjoys them. Model Railroading magazine is, sadly, a shadow of it's former self, but there are other magazines that are carrying the torch, along with numerous web sites.

Things are not quite as bad now as they might seem. Sure, there are people who will build layouts or models for you (in some cases of museum quality), but there are plenty of options for those who want to build their own. The pictures look "too" good mostly because modern digital cameras don't quite produce the same feel that film cameras did.

Those $100 PFM-style brass models are still available for roughly equivalent inflation-adjusted prices ($500 to $1000 or more). But, they're mostly purchased by collectors, as there are many excellent plastic locomotive models available now which are every bit as detailed and run far better than the majority of the brass models ever did, for a fraction of the price.

The hobby is slowly dying for other reasons, few people these days find trains of interest, and fewer can devote the amounts of time that people once did to these sorts of things. But, there is still plenty of stuff out there, just look...

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Submitted by gmoke on

The MIT Model Railroad Club was essential in the development of early computing system as members worked out feedback and control systems for the model railroad that evolved into simple computer circuitry. See Fred Hapgood's _Up the Infinite Corridor_ for more.

Building 20 is gone now, replaced, in part, by a Frank Gehry building. The Model Railroad Club was supposed to be moved into the MIT Museum but I haven't been there to confirm that possibility. I hope it made the move because it was a valuable piece of history and a continuing joy.

I took my video camera to one of the last open houses at the Club in the basement of Building 20 but haven't looked at the tapes since I took them. I was doing a lot of public access video in those days and haven't gotten back into it for over a decade now.