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How Model Railroad Technology Has Changed Over The Years

Feb 9, 2008
The first model train systems worked on wind-up clock parts, followed shortly thereafter by miniature steam engines. The materials of the locomotives and cars were typically cheap tinplate or lightweight woods that didnt hold up well.

The thought of controlling the system remotely was a pipe dream at that time " and even single switches and connectors if added at all were manually controlled just like the real things. Times as they say have changed " and how!

Modern electric systems can actually digital control multiple locomotives independently on the same track " in some cases while simultaneously controlling an older analog system as well. Electrically operating street lights, motorized apparatus and even sounds and smoke replicas are common place now. But just how did this revolution get started?

When the first steam-powered engines were developed and up until the mid 1920s something of a boom was occurring in the model train industry and gimmicks and the creation of accessories and marketing were bringing public awareness and interest to a new level.

Specialty items like the Toonerville Trolley, a wind-up locomotive toy made in Germany that had innovative aspects such as real-life interactions of a character driving the trolley began to spur interest in the creation of what is now common automation elements incorporated in dioramas.

Lionel was one of the early innovators, introducing a new knuckle coupler system and increasingly realistic models. In 1946 Lionel introduced smoke which was so popular that within a few years all models had it! Other postwar additions were figures that operated elements such as doors, loading or unloading baggage etc. all designed to up the realism of the systems.

Perhaps the most stunning change in railroad modeling history was the introduction of the digital controller in the mid 1900s. With the Digital Command Control (DCC) systems such as the models introduced by Digitrax every locomotive is outfitted with a decoder which intercepts and responds to commands addressed to that specific item. This allows voltage to be placed on the track and used as needed via the controller, as specified by a digital signal that is also sent across the same track.

Since each locomotive only responds to the commands sent directly to it modelers were then able to control a series of trains running on the same track just as their real-life counterparts would do. Speed, directionality all is individually controllable " of course just like those real world counterparts collisions are now a possible concern. But Im sure if technology continues to advance remote controlled emergency recovery vehicles will be able to attend the scene in record time.
About the Author
Interested in making your own model train scenery? Visit The Model Railroader for lots of helpful information. Plus get your copy of "Model Railroad Design Secrets" at http://www.themodelrailroader.com
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