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How far we've come in 80+ years

Posted: Sat Feb 13, 2010 11:35 am
by Andrew Brandon
I visit historic image blog Shorpy, on a regular basis. Over the past week there have been a handful of images there which show some early electric model railroading items by John N. Swartzell. The first two date from 1925, the third from 1929. For the tools and craftsman ship involved back then it is impressive work.

Re: How far we've come in 80+ years

Posted: Sat Feb 13, 2010 11:53 am
by CraigH
Funny Andrew!

For a bit I was collecting and building old RR kits. I had a guy get me somewhat interested in TT, did a few 1940's era military recognition models and stuff like that. I still dabble in ship modeling and much of the basics haven't changed in hundreds of years.

Makes me really glad we have tools, materials, and electrical stuff they didn't have! I look at the stuff I was doing in the 70's VS now. I remember in the early 80's photo etching in my home darkroom, I don't think there was such a thing as a commercially etched product then. It goes on and on.


Re: How far we've come in 80+ years

Posted: Mon Feb 15, 2010 2:54 pm
by John Coker
Fascinating subject. Not much out there about the history of the model railroad hobby. Here is my spin on its early history.It is my understanding the hobby is a little over 100 years old, and started not long after electric train sets were first retailed, about 1907 or 8. It was going by the 1920s, as modelers added some detail to existing Lionel, Marx or A.C. Gilbert models. By all accounts the great Depression really got the hobby going. Millions of men were underemployed, and the hobby started in the Northeast, where many houses had big basements or attics and winters were long and wet. Model Railroader started in 1934. Hobby techniques were primitive, and reflected the times. Lots of articles about building boilers around cardboard paper towel centers or scrap pipe, structures from strathmore board, paints made from houshold dyes, employing cigar tubes for culverts,etc. Some articles like this peristed in to the 1960s. Some of the techniques are still used, like staining and weathering wood still employ thinned shoe polishes.
After WWII the hobby was given another boost by manufacturers making specialty parts and model kits. Ambroid intriduced some beautiful car kits, that if nicely made, can still look great on any layout, 6 decades later. The next quantum leap was M.B Austin and Jack Ryan (PFM) importing brass models from Occupied Japan in 1953. The hobby seemed to peak in the late 1950s and early 60s. There was lots of stuff available, and modelers still built a lot of kits.
There was a drop-off in the mid 1960s , when there was a fear that slot cars would kill the hobby. This, of course, was unfounded, and more big changes occured as more ready-to run models were available, and an explosion of lost wax parts came onto the market, along with superdetailed brass locomotives. Narrow gauge became increasingly popular, and in some ways revived the hobby again.
On occaison Bob Brown at the Gazette has featured articles on pioneer modelers like Hugh Boutell and Jack Alexander. Jack Alexander lived in a remote town in Northwest Pennsylvania. He started making handmade On3 models as early as 1940, and had a beautiful layout by the 1950s. I have seen a few of his models. They are crude (but nicely proportioned) by today's standards, but are prized collectors' items. If you can latch onto a copy, get the Feb or April 1964 MR article on Alexander. One of their best features ever! It has Jack's layout on the cover with the caption "Changing, Changing, Changing! The Restless Railroad"
The hobby is at a crossroads. The interest in brass models has plummeted, as cheaper plastic or die-cast models came on the scene. Old guys like me have way too many brass models. Alas, they worth only a fraction of what I paid for them, if I could find a buyer. While On30 has really helped N.G. modeling, some of us fear that craftsman- style modeling could be a thing of the past. None of us can find the time.
Some day I hope somone writes a definitive history of the hobby. :ugeek:

Re: How far we've come in 80+ years

Posted: Wed Feb 17, 2010 7:12 pm
by dsp&p_fan
Andrew: very nice find

John: I know what you mean. On30 is both a step forward and backwards at the same time. It seems to encourage people to plunge into narrow gauge and craftsmanship, yet also lowers the standards of craftsmanship. Malcolm Furlow is laughing his head off at his critics today...caricatures and whimsical "modeling" are mainstream. Simultaneously, the Broadway Limited revolution has eliminated the market for common brass while Spectrum has made quality models affordable.

The impression I've gotten is that craftsmanship is very much alive and well. It isn't in the workshops of retirees, it is on the kitchen tables of the 20-35 year old crowd. I'm 27 and love pushing myself to both a high degree of prototype fidelity and using a minimum of commercial components (wheels, brake wheels, and NBWs...passenger trucks on some passenger cars). Thanks to the internet, I know more of my peers whom handlay than all other age groups combined. I'd love to see the demographics of On30 modelers...I suspect that it has a higher average age than HOn3 and On3.

The difficulty with Andrew and I's generation is that we don't conform to the patterns of prior generations. I'm one of the few in our generation whom seeks social organizations beyond the internet (most don't join local train or model train clubs because that role is filled by internet groups). Like much of our generation, not only do I not watch tv (aside from the NFL), but it is stored in the attic except on NFL game days. Most seem more interested in being on youtube than tv and being published on internet forums or blogs than in magazines.

Here's my rail related blog:


Re: How far we've come in 80+ years

Posted: Thu Feb 18, 2010 1:21 pm
by Andrew Brandon
I'll toss my hat out on this one..

I don't watch TV either. As someone who deals with technology, especially technology for the varied forms of media, I am detached from popular culture these days and have been for the past 6-7 years. Granted, I do watch "TV", but in the sense that I'll either download, watch online or rent a season of a show to watch it at my own pace. I was quite pleased with myself this year as I was able to stream the Super Bowl ("illegally") LIVE thanks to the internet. I work in the IT field, this is why I am apt to do computer related modeling projects. Many of the reference documents available here on the site have come from my own research as I am keen on saving hard copies of these things for myself. I've been lurking on forums and email groups for years and I've witnessed the growth of our hobby thanks to the internet, yet I've also seen many many cases of people mishandling railroading on the internet. There was a thread over on the NGDF about RGS train sheets that illustrates the bridge between the old fashioned and modern methods. Jerry Day I have no doubt has put a lot of work into the Snowplow operations on the D&RG(W), his frustration over publishing the documents he's been processing for his future book. As someone who is working on an NCNG book, I share his apprehension, but I can also see the benefit in having the information out there. Personally I have been pouring major time into reading the Grass Valley Union during 1875, allowing me to understand the construction of the NCNG and hopefully tidbits about the equipment, paint colors and answers to other questions. If someone were to, lets say, start transcribing articles and posting them on their own, I would be a little put off by this. On the other hand, I can see how having the information will be beneficial. I believe it takes compromise these days to handle both methods of modeling. Sure you could post the articles online, people would read them, but most people would lose interest after a couple months worth of articles. I feel there will always be a need for the devoted to take the time, sort it out and publish it, be it in physical book form or a page on the internet.

I commented on one of the email groups a few years ago that our model railroad culture is changing. Younger folk like myself and Michael aren't as interested by 40s-50s Colorado stuff, it is interesting sure, but we do not have the attachment to seeing or hearing about it when it was still operating, when we were younger. Some folks out there despise Colorado narrow gauge because of its dominance over the market for the past 50 or so years. Let's face it, Colorado has been exposed for so long that it started to become synonymous with "Narrow Gauge" in general. Books on the subject continue to dominate the market and our roads which are local to us, and potentially highly interesting are often neglected. Worse yet, most information that circles the internet is rehashed from OLD books because that is what the entry level NG fan will likely get their hands on first. This website was started with the express purpose of combating some of this. Think of the information that floats around regarding topics like Russia Iron, Locomotive paint and so forth. While there have been great strides in flushing this information out there are still die-hards that firmly believe the old information. Recently, I saw a wonderful model of a Mason Bogie which had its ornamental dome rings painted brass... This is a mistake pulled from the 40s and 50s ideas of what these locomotives looked like when the earliest model railroaders and rail historians believed this to be true because these parts were always very shiny in photographs. Nevermind that locomotives in builders photos are heavily varnished, and of course: Varnish + Curved Surfaces + Sunlight = Shiny. Another of my favorites that STILL floats around is the use of red on strange places on locomotives. We often see "1880s" D&RG locomotives with red paint on the domes, stack or cab which is just what someone guessed years and years ago, yet is still believed to be the gospel to some. Even out west there has been a long standing myth that SPC locomotives were red... as it turns out they were not only Green, but the SPC was painting locomotives to match with their newest locomotives, in effect copying the Baldwin paint schemes of the time.

As a modeler I wasn't always a strict rivet counter like I am now. In my younger days I went through many phases but was fortunate enough to get my hands on Model Railroader magazines from the 70s, back when they were loaded with plans or scratchbuilding ideas. As a kid I dabbled with these ideas and was never afraid to cut into a model or attempt a kitbash. I never succeeded in these of course, but I realized what could be done with some tweaking. Is it any wonder I figured out that the Bachmann On30 flat could be converted into an NCNG-esq car? ;) When I turned 22 I started getting into super detailing, at the time I was modeling a lot of standard gauge stuff because of my involvement with a local club. I then started detailing models for others and pushing the limits of what I could do detail wise in HO scale. I've actually built countless models for friends, a good chunk of which have since wound up on ebay and in the hands of people I've never met. I welcomed the chance to build so many models and these days while I don't have many models that are really for my collection, but I've got the skills to do just about anything I set my mind to.

It will be interesting to see how our hobby continues to evolve in the future. I suspect that as time allows and the RTR craze begins to die out (China wont be cheap forever guys..), we'll move more to cottage industry kits which are popular in the UK. I also feel that in the coming decade desktop laser cutters and CNC machines will become more common place for all of us, even HP has put a desktop 3D printer on the market these days. People often speculate that our hobby is dying, I don't believe it is. Our hobby is thriving, the catch is, most of the new generation are interested in modern railfanning than the older stuff, and even the Colorado NG fans will dwindle in the future. This isn't the end of our hobby, as I mentioned I believe that we're just in the middle of a cultural shift and our hobby will continue to become diversify. RTR HOn3 and On30 may appeal to the armchair modelers, however we're starting to see that it is bringing out the talented modeling efforts in some. The next 80 years of our hobby will certainly see some drastic changes, but many of them may very well ultimately lead to a stronger hobby base consisting of folks not afraid to get their hands dirty.

That is what I'd like to believe anyway. :)

Re: How far we've come in 80+ years

Posted: Thu Feb 18, 2010 10:14 pm
by John Coker
Thoughtful posts, gents. I generally believe On30 has been great for the hobby. I would say that brass, as much as I love these models, has been toxic to model railroading, making it the hobby of rich old men, shutting out the younger modelers. PBL charged $1750 for its last brass locomotive. Anyone could get started in On30 - loco, train and an oval of track and some structure kits for less than a quarter of that! Old timers think On30 is toy junk, but it has revitalized the narrow gauge end of the model r.r. hobby. Frankly, if I could do it all over again, it would be On30. The stuff runs great and just looks fun. However a harbinger of trouble for craftsman-style model building is how Caboose and other big shops are cutting back on their brass investment casting parts. I watch a bunch of tv (only at night), but that is mainly so I can paint and
be entertained. I do an hour of so of modeling every couple of days. Modeling's future is by no means guaranteed. There are computer programs out there that duplicate old-time railroading and they are getting better and better. Why build a layout when you can run the Pacific Electric, NCNG or any other road right on your monitor? However, us hairless apes will always like to work with our hands, and that itself ensures the future of this and many other craft hobbies. You younger modelers are the future. Stay at it, and I agree, it doesn't have to be all Colorado narrow gauge, all the time!

Re: How far we've come in 80+ years

Posted: Fri Feb 19, 2010 2:38 pm
by dsp&p_fan
I find HO to be a nice measure for what's going on...

Athearn Blue Box? Gone.
Bowser? No longer producing locomotive kits.
MDC? Under new ownership and all RTR (and mighty nice mechanisms!)

I'm very interested in seeing how rapid prototyping techniques will impact our hobby. It eliminates (to a degree) the need for lost wax brass a cheaper price. I also wonder what impact it will have on resin and etched brass kits. One doesn't have to be skilled in anything other than 3-D CAD to produce complicated rolling stock masters.

Yeah, I can only laugh when I look at the P-B-L stuff. I agree that Sn3 is the ultimate size...but the locomotives are so absurdly expensive...only a "rich old man" can ever hope to equip anything but the smallest layout with motive power. Still, I applaud their research and use of the Grandt family to produce their kit tooling. (I always find Grandt Line's quality to be impeccable...yet moderately priced...and Dave certainly is willing to join into internet discussions with fabulous photos/information)

I've yet to meet an On30 modeler under age 50. It may be moderately priced, but it doesn't seem to attract us. I've known of a few 30-40ish guys whom have dabbled in On30, but their primary work was HOn3. In practice, On30 takes up nearly as much space as On3 and is nearly as expensive...two details which generally cause young people to either go into HOn3 or HO. (and to play with Nn3). (explanation of the cost: scale On30 track is just as expensive as On3 track...On30 stuff converts to On3 quite easily...HOn3 is still cheaper through the old MDC locomotives)


Edit: John, I missed your fine point on rail simulators. They certainly represent another dimension to our hobby. I have Rail Simulator and TrainZ. In both cases, they lost my attention after a few weeks. Something about being stuck in front of a computer screen and the lack of feeling like I'd accomplished anything once I was done. I got involved enough in TrainZ to have started a scenario based on the Silverton RR. I performed a very similar process to preparing topographic data for GIS software to add accurate elevation data. I lost interest over time due to limitations in the software, limitations in the user created content, and the lack of challenge. I've never been much of a simulator needs to be a game (there needs to be at least one loser...)

Re: How far we've come in 80+ years

Posted: Fri Feb 19, 2010 8:57 pm
by John Coker
Again , Micheal you make some fascinating points and observations. I know John Parker (San Juan Car) uses CAD. He has offered to show me how it works. I plan to take him up on it. Being 57, I bought into the brass mystiqe, literally. After 30 years of avid collecting I ended up owning an absurd number of models; most but not all in Sn3 (10 are On3; also Ho, Sn2, Hon3). I look now and ask myself, why? The models were gorgeous and unique. However, if I sold any of them today, they would not fetch half the price I paid for them. Living in an 866 sq. ft 1890 shack, where would I build a layout? I recently drew the line when PBL made the C&S B-4-F class (#74,75,76). I wanted #75. They were $1750. My cousin then offered a 7/8 restored 1951 Chevy tudor sedan for $1250, with a rebuilt motor. Which one would be more fun and functional in my life? I ended up buying neither, but you get the point. This hobby went way too expensive, and it should not have. Fortunately, cheaper models are finally on the market and drawing younger modelers to narrow gauge. Simulators are not "Avatar"quality; they are still computer-cartoonish, but getting better. I told a programmer that the breakthrough would be operaton features, like handling heavy trains. The holy grail would be realistic brake handling downgrade. Now, THERE would be a dangerous adversary! Reach equalization through poor handling and the train goes off the rails! The programmer actually said they were working on that. Like you said, though, modeling is more tactile and involving. Staring at a monitor can only go so far. We can count on big changes in the hobby as time goes on. Someday, people will be collecting our models, like Hugh Boutell's or Jack Alexander's! :ugeek:

Re: How far we've come in 80+ years

Posted: Thu May 23, 2013 11:56 pm
by Ed Weldon
Well, it's been 3 years since the last post in this section. Seems like there is not much interest here in modeling. I have trouble believing that. I think the current state of the model train art is a little different than your guys predicted in 2010's posts above. The predicted movement of modelers into actually building models doesn't seem to have happened. RTR is stronger than ever and DCC seems to dominate the discourse. Scratch building continues do diminish in interest in favor of elaborate and expensive kits and details. Layouts featured in magazines, tours and events tend to be elaborate and expensive lifetime projects beyond the reach of most of us. Practical 3d printing of train models hasn't happened yet in any volume and may never happen at an affordable cost.
None of this does anything to enhance the stature of modelers in a subculture that ascribes the highest status based on one's connections to or at least knowledge and interest in 1:1 railroads.
Small wonder the modelers are quiet here about that side of their interests. I would like to see that change.
In the world of narrow gauge we applaud the preservation of real estate, hardware, written history, images, and ephemera. We respect and support accurate 2d artistic work especially when it is an accurate depiction of railroad history. Why not choose our 3d modeling efforts with the idea of making them historically accurate at some level of perception. That doesn't mean super detailed. It means that what is modeled is historically accurate at the detail level chosen by the modeler.
If you do that then you have produced a replica snapshot of history that has value above and beyond the entertainment and craftsmanship value of most models. This can well be extended to whole train layouts, large and small. But take note here that for a layout to have real value as a portrayal of history it must be capable of placed into public view without destroying it, both during the ownership tenure of the builder as well as after it is transferred to the next owner. This supports the case for small or modular (in the broad sense) layout construction. It also makes a case for scratch building locos and rolling stock if your narrow gauge model is something other than the currently popular lines and time periods of Colorado and several other state's mountain railroads.
I'd also like to suggest an interesting pursuit would be modeling static (non operational) scenes of railroads in scales much smaller than the current operational scales. For example models of any of the three major stops on the SPNG , Laws, Keeler and Owenyo would be on the order of 18-30" long by less than a foot wide in 1:1044 scale. Double that in 1:522. Quite suitable for wall art or easy transport to events. BTW, 1:1044 scale is what a 1" = 1 foot scale layout drawing in HO would be. In that scale the locos and rolling stock won't look like much. But double it to 1:522 and a loco could actually look like #8 or #9.
Ed Weldon