Eccentric engineer

The eccentric engineer: The surprising origins of the train set

Image credit: Getty Images

These days, probably fewer children wish for a train set than in the past, preferring electronic wizardry. Perhaps model trains were never really for kids in the first place.

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

By the 1850s, though, model trains had become a market in themselves with the arrival of the wonderfully named ‘Birmingham Dribblers’, more properly called ‘carpet railways’. These live steam trains didn’t run on rails at all, but just steamed across the carpet, often leaving a trail of boiling water and highly flammable fuel in their wake – hence the name. Despite their failings, these were expensive precision engineering models, very much not aimed at the average child.

As time passed and the steam train became ubiquitous, other bespoke model railways began to appear in Europe and America, often working on clockwork mechanisms. But these were also expensive. It was a German company, Märklin, that would transform the train set in 1891 when it came up with a train ‘system’ based on standardised gauges. Märklin had been making tinplate toys since the late 1850s but had always looked enviously at another area of the market, doll’s houses. A doll’s house was not a one-off toy but a system, with a starter set – the house itself – which could be added to and improved, bringing customers back year after year. 

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

Märklin made sets in three gauges from 1¾ inches to 2½ inches between the rails. Other German manufacturers quickly followed suit, realising they could steal a part of the Märklin pie if their toys worked on the Märklin gauge system. The toys proved hugely successful across Europe and the US, giving German manufacturers a head start in the business. As other competitors joined the field, the makers innovated, offering live steam and even electrical models as well as clockwork.

To keep costs within the range of the middle-class children who formed their main market, the bodywork and painting on these early models was often quite crude, using thin tinplate pressing and simple colourful lithography transfers. They were engines and carriages, but not any particular kind, although as toys this hardly mattered.

Eccentric Engineer

Image credit: Getty Images

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

Yet Bassett-Lowke saw an opportunity with these new German toys. Employing Henry Greenly, who had worked on full-​size locomotives, the firm went about building more accurate bodyworks for miniature toy engines built by the major German manufacturers. Gone was the thin tinplate and brightly coloured transfer paintwork, and in its place came accurate detailing and authentic livery. Bassett-Lowke models were miniature versions of the real thing. These were not toys for children: they were working models for adults!

As the clouds of war gathered in 1914, the market for trainsets looked perilous. Germany was largely unable to export to its main markets and its factories were turned over to war work. Nor could British makers compete. Bassett-Lowke and other precision engineering companies were also required for war work, so for almost a decade, a train set was an astonishing rarity in any Christmas stocking.

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

With the idea of a model train no longer just a colourful novelty, he began developing clockwork, and later electric, train sets that combined the small scale and lower cost of the old tinplate toys with the more accurate modelling associated with the grown-up trains made by the likes of Bassett-Lowke. This led to the launch in 1938 of the famous OO gauge ‘Dublo’ model railway. Train sets were no longer just stocking toys or treats for aristocrats. A whole miniature railway world had been born. The only question was – is it for children or adults?

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