Many people enjoy creating model railroads. One of the reasons this hobby is so popular is that it’s one parents and their children can enjoy together. The hobby combines mechanics with art and creativity, especially for those who go all out and create mountains, villages, rivers, and tunnels for their model railroads.
It’s important to note that the model trains used in this hobby are not simply toys—most are painstakingly modeled after real engines, cars, and cabooses and are incredibly detailed. While the technology behind model railroads and the materials available for creating railroad layouts is certainly more advanced today than it was years ago, the history behind model railroads is still quite interesting.
Model railroading first began back in 1825. It was during this year that Josef Ritter von Baader created the first model train for the Nymphenberg castle park. His plan was to attract the interest of the king of Bayern and convince the king to invest in von Baader’s full scale railroad project. The king’s interest, however, was not piqued, and he did not invest in von Baader’s railway. However, after a railway between Furth and Nurnberg opened that same year without the king’s funding, von Baader’s model train became little more than a curiosity, although other engineers began using his idea of building a model for investors.
After the railway opened, toy makers in the area created solid castings of the main steam engine. However, these toys were simple push toys that weren’t powered. It wouldn’t be until 1862 that the first steam-powered model train would be created. It was designed and built by Joseph, Myers, & Co., a toy company based out of London. No tracks were used with this first model train. It ran on the floor, and most ran on ethanol. These first model railroads ranged from a 63 mm gauge up to a 115 mm gauge.
In 1891, German company Marklin created the first model railroad system. They introduced several new gauges, model train tracks, locomotives, cars, and other accessories. Marklin was producing models in four different gauges by 1900.These model railroads were generally seen as children’s toys, however, and not as a hobby for adults. In 1904, however, adults began building model trains as a hobby. The first true non-toy model trains were built by English hobbyists who worked with the Bing Company, a toy company based in Germany. Their efforts led to the creation of several prototype models and scales, including the 0 scale (1:43.5), the 1 (1:30), the 2 (1:27), and the large 3 scale (1:23). They also created the first model train magazine, Model Engineer, a publication that is still in print today.
These first model trains were run on hardwood or cement floors because of their large size and ran on steam or clockwork. This would remain the standard for model railroads until after World War I. Previously, nearly all model railroads were made in Germany. However, the war forcing American and British companies to start producing model railways for collectors. By the mid 1910s, electricity had replaced steam and clockworks as the main power source for model trains.
The first table-top model railway was later created in 1923 by British model train company Bassett-Lowke. It was considered an OO scale (1:76), which is slightly bigger than the modern HO scale.By 1935, model railroading as a hobby had truly taken form across the world. The scaling system as we know it was in use thanks to the formation of the National Model Railroading Association (the NMRA). They standardized the O and HO scales as 1:87 and 1:48, respectively.
The mid 1930s also saw the rise of many new model railroad manufacturers, including Bachman, Marklin, and Trix. However, while the scales were standardized, they weren’t necessarily liked. Most American model railroaders thought the O scale was too large but that the HO scale was a bit too small. As a compromise, American Flyer trains released the S scale, a 1:64 scale, in 1946. However, World War II led to new homes being built smaller so as to save on materials. Because of this, the HO scale became very popular. Today, a very small number of people build S scale model railroads, although this group is dedicated enough to publish S Scaler Monthly, a magazine featuring only S scale trains.
It was also shortly after WWII that plastic became the main material used in model railroads. By the 1950s, model railroading was incredibly popular, especially among fathers and sons. This boom didn’t last for long, however, although the market did rebound in the 1970s.
HO scale was the favorite up until the 1970s, when European train companies began experimenting with the N scale, a 1:160 scale that was the smallest scale designed. The N scale exploded across Europe and the United States, and soon a good number of model railroad fans, especially beginners, were creating layouts using N scale. Part of the draw was that these small trains were fairly cheap, although the quality of the parts was quite good.
It was around this time that the O scale model trains, the largest, also became somewhat popular after the Atlas train company began producing O scale products.In 1972, Marklin once again made headlines in the model train world by creating the Z scale, a 1:220 scale. However, it was really too small for most collectors, and it never really caught on. Marklin is still involved in the model train world, though, and today the company publishes Model Railroader and produces many different model railroads.
Today, model railroading, while not as popular as it once was, is still going strong. Many different gauges are produced, and a number of publications aimed at model railroaders are published each month. Large trade shows are held annually in which hobbyists can purchase new accessories, trains, and more for their own model railroads in addition to seeing some of the most impressive layouts ever created.