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Model Railways – A History
Model railways is a hobby that many people enjoy, and its history is more varied and rich than many imagine. People have been building model railways since 1825, although it hasn’t been a popular hobby for that long. However, once it caught on, it immediately became a favourite activity for parents and children to do together. Model railways is one of those rare hobbies that combine both mechanical aspects with art. In addition to building the railways and designing the layout, many railroaders built an entire miniature world for their trains to run though, including creating small buildings, forests, mountains, and tunnels. True model railway enthusiasts know that these small trains are not just toys; they’re incredibly detailed reproductions of real railroad engines and cars. While the basic engineering behind model railways hasn’t changed much, today’s engines and accessories are even more detailed than ever before.
The history of model railways begins in 1825 with Josef Ritter von Baader. He created the first model railroad while designing the park of Nymphenberg castle. Von Baader hoped his model would convince the king of Bavern to fund von Baader’s full-sized railroad, but the king was not interested in funding such a huge project. Despite not securing the king’s funding, the railway between Furth and Nurnberg was still built. While von Baader’s model of the railway faded into obscurity, other engineers liked his idea of building models to show potential investors.
The Furth/Nurnberg railway had one other effect on model railway. After its opening, several toy shops in the cities starting making and selling small toy trains based on the steam engines. While these toys had no power source, they were some of the first model trains and were directly responsible for the steam-powered models that would be built starting in 1862. These tiny steam-powered replicas were created by Joseph, Myers, & Co., a London toy company. The model railroad now had power but no tracks as of yet. These steam engines ran on ethanol and varied in size from a 63 mm gauge to a 115 mm gauge.
It wasn’t until almost 75 years after von Baader’s train that Marklin, a company in Germany, would create the first mass-market model railway. In 1891, they began selling their model railway, and by 1900, they were producing four different gauges and a wide array of tracks, engines, and other accessories. However, like the earlier steam powered models, Marklin’s model railways were still usually classified as toys. However, that quickly changed when, in 1904, a group of English hobbyists began building model railways as a hobby. Then started working with toy manufacturer Bing to create various scales such as the 0 scale (1:43.5), the 1 scale (1:30), the 2 scale (1:27), and the biggest scale, the 3 (1:23). This group also began publishing Model Engineer, the first magazine for model railway enthusiasts, a publication that is still in circulation today.
These large trains, especially the 3 scale, ran on cement floors or hardwood floors, and they were powered by steam engines or by clockwork gears. This type of model railway was the standard up to World War I. The war greatly changed how the British and American model railway hobbyists purchased their models because most model railroad kits and supplies were made in Germany. It wasn’t until WWI that British and US companies truly began making model railways for collectors instead of for children.
Electric models were introduced in the mid 1910s and soon completely replaced gears and steam engines. This lead to the creation of the first table-top model railroad in 1923. Made by Bassett-Lowke, a British company, the railway was done to OO scale, or 1:76. This is just a bit larger than today’s modern HO scale. Following the launch of the table-top model, model railwaying began to snowball, and by 1935, there were model builders around the world. During this time, the National Model Railroading Association was formed. They began standardizing the current scale system, including defining the O scale as 1:87 and the HO scale as 1:48. During the 1930s and early 40s, many new model railroad manufacturers started up, including Trix and Bachman, and German manufacturer Marklin began shipping overseas once again.
Many hobbyists, especially those in America, were not happy with the O and HO scale. They found the O scale to be too big but the HO scale to be too small. This lead to the creation of the S scale by American Flyer. Introduced in 1946, the S scale was a 1:64 scale. However, it didn’t prove to be as popular as the company would have liked. Because of the material shortage during and following World War II, new American homes were built on a smaller scale. This made the HO scale popular since the model railroads took up less space.
Following World War II, model trains were mostly made from plastic instead of iron since iron was in short supply. Since they were lighter and cheaper, model railways became a very popular hobby during the 1950s. The popularity of the hobby would rise and fall over the next several decades, dropping in the 60s but enjoying a boom in the 1970s.
It was during the 1970s that European model companies created the N scale. The N scale, 1:160, was the smallest model railroad scale ever designed. It quickly became very popular around the world, and soon many were building N scale layouts. One of the reasons it was so popular was that the small trains were cheap yet still well designed and detailed. Marklin created the Z scale in 1972, which was 1:220. Few collectors purchase these tiny models, however, and Marklin soon returned to producing the other, more popular scale accessories.
While model railway building isn’t as popular of a hobby today as it has been in the past, many people continue to build model railways. In addition to purchasing many different scales and accessories, many enthusiasts even attend trade shows every year where they can see some of the most detailed and interesting model railroads ever built.