A Brief History Of Electric Train Sets

Published: 16th May 2012
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In years gone by, not all model train sets were electric train sets. When toy trains first came into being, most of them were 'pull-push' toys. Others would run on a 'wind-up clock-work' type mechanism. After the invention of the battery, toy train manufacturers inevitably began producing battery powered toy trains. The public loved this idea, and toy trains that ran on battery power became a hit.

During the late 19th and early 20th century electricity wasn't a truly viable option when it came to powering toys, purely because it wasn't cheap and not everyone could afford to use it in their homes. However, in time this changed and today over half of the model trains manufactured around the world are powered by electricity.

How Model Trains Were Powered Before Electric Trains Sets Were Invented

Collectors know that even though a vintage or antique electric train set can be worth its weight in gold if the set has been kept in good condition, some of the earlier trains sets that were powered by alternative methods can be just as valuable, purely due to their rarity and scarcity.

1. Clockwork toy trains.

Clockwork or 'spring-drive' toy trains were controlled by levers on the locomotive itself. Even though controlling a model train this way was difficult, the trains themselves were usually large enough, and grabbing the levers to control them was seen as the 'only way to control them'.

Over time, manufacturers decided to incorporate trigger points into their clockwork trains' tracks that would trigger the levers on the locomotive and slow it down or stop it, allowing it to perform realistic station stops.

2. Battery powered model trains.

Batteries were often used in toy trains during the late 19th and early 20th century. Although some model trains today are still powered by batteries, these are seldom used by veteran hobbyists, due to the fact that the amount of power that runs through a small battery operated model train may not be always be consistent.

Most outdoor model railways and larger model trains still use large batteries however, purely because it can be difficult to connect to an electric current when operating a model railway outdoors. These batteries can be recharged on a regular basis.

3. Live steam model trains.

These model trains are actually powered by live steam. The steam is formed quite simply by boiling water; the pressure of the steam then moves the train. The water is boiled by burning coal. When electricity was introduced many trains turned to using an electric charge through the train's tracks to boil the water, which once again created the steam.

Steam is also created by using a propane burning boiler. For smaller steam trains, pellets are dropped into water in the tender which react with the water and also generate steam.

4. Internal combustion.

Although this was obviously not the choice of those who wanted to operate toy trains inside their homes, those that were fascinated by large scale trains that were operated outdoors would make use of petrol to power their trains. Large scale petrol-mechanical and petrol-hydraulic model trains are still used by extreme enthusiasts who like their trains to in fact be so large that children can be pulled in small cars behind the train's locomotive.

These models are obviously extremely pricy, but are also extremely unusual, and that's what attracts extreme model railroading hobbyists to them. These trains can range from a 1 : 3 scale to a 1 : 8 scale.

How Electricity Changed Everything

In 1901 Joshua Lionel Cowen of the infamous Lionel model trains company first discovered that using electricity was a great way to power a train, and could therefore be termed the 'father' of electric train sets.

Today, a train set's transformer is plugged into a regular house hold outlet and receives 125 volts of electricity which is then transformed into the 12 or 16 volt current required by the train set. The wheels of the model train pick up this electricity that is distributed through the tracks. This electricity then makes the electric motor turn.

Overhead lines for model trains were also popular among hobbyists before digital command and control systems came into being. This was the best way to run two trains on a layout at the same time. The model train that replicated an electric train would be powered by the overhead circuitry, while the model train that replicated a steam powered train would be powered by the electricity that ran through the rails.

In conclusion, there are a few ways to power a model train. However, electric train sets are the simplest to operate, and having an easy to operate train set leaves you with more time to construct its perfect railroad layout.

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