My American Flyer electric train was one of the great joys of my young life. My parents bought it for me in 1942, just before wartime priorities channeled the A.C. Gilbert Company and its production facilities away from Erector sets and toy trains and into wartime activities. Being only two years of age at the time, I got an early introduction to the magic of toy trains. While not the most expensive set offered by the A.C. Gilbert Company, it was one of the nicer ones – definitely not one of the cheapie sets. It featured a detailed Pennsy Railroad K4 “Pacific” type locomotive and five cars, one of which was a very clever and fun “unloading car” which, at the press of a button, unloaded a tootsie-toy armored car trackside. Oh, the marvels of electrical technology!
Every Christmas morning, the train appeared as if by magic under our Christmas tree – obviously due to the heroic overnight efforts of Santa Claus! In the early years, I only saw my train for the few weeks of the Christmas season – probably because of our limited floor space and my dad’s limited available time. I loved my train so much that I thought about it frequently during the year, eagerly anticipating the next Christmas. The above photo shows me with my little Chicago friend, Judy Maitzen, at Christmas-time, 1946 as I demonstrate to her the fine points of engineering – in the railroading sense.
That train set was my prized possession in those early years. Along came life, and the train set languished for many years in our garage, still packed in its original boxes. After I retired from engineering (the Silicon Valley variety) in 2001, I became interested in the modern generation of toy trains. The technology had progressed by leaps and bounds from the old days of pressing a button to close a circuit and, gee-whiz, something happens! Today’s “toy” trains can be completely operated from a wireless remote hand-controller; they come equipped with accurate railroad sounds, recorded from trackside and stored digitally within the on-board electronics. Push a button on the remote controller, and a cascade of very realistic whistles, steam emissions, diesel sounds, and synchronized choo-choo sounds emanate directly from the engines. And the physical detail is fantastic.
I became hooked once again by the magic of toy trains (and real ones, too) and began assembling a small collection of modern Lionel trains and accessories along with books and DVDs. The latter added much to my understanding and appreciation of the impact of toy trains on kids (mostly boys) throughout the decades. The Lionel Corporation was founded by Joshua Lionel Cowen in 1900 and has produced toy trains for over 112 years. Can you conjure up any corporation – let alone a toy producer – that has been in business for that long? The list is very, very short! That in itself constitutes a significant testimonial to the enduring popularity of toy trains. In recent years, the audience has shifted significantly from boys to those, like myself, who once were little boys and who have discovered that they are still susceptible to the charm of toy trains. The question that coalesced in my mind: “Are today’s kids still interested in toy trains given all the distractions that exist around them?”
I bravely ventured at that time, “If we have grandsons some day, perhaps they, too, will enjoy toy trains like I did.” Several years passed, and Matthew and Luke were born, following our two beautiful granddaughters, Megan and Amanda. Like their mother and grandma, the girls loved their dolls and everything associated.
The boys fell for my new trains, hook, line, and sinker. By the time Matthew was four, I trusted him to operate these sophisticated trains – remote control, dual trains, multiple track-switches and all – without supervision. He was that good at learning how to operate them, and he always obeyed my “operational principles.” Luke would arrive at our house every day-care Wednesday and immediately go over to where the trains had been to see if they had magically re-appeared since I put them away. This continued for weeks after they had been packed up. Hope springs eternal!
I first knew for certain that they had fallen under the same spell that afflicted me as a kid when I observed them both laying on the floor with their eyes at track level for long periods of time, reveling in the inexplicable “beauty” of a locomotive bearing down the track toward them. Funny, I did that same thing repeatedly back then, oblivious to everything else around me.
Matthew loves playing with his dad’s Android tablet these days as do most kids who can get their hands on electronics. Electronics and the internet will be a strong contender for his and Luke’s attention in the coming years as has been the case with Megan and Amanda. I am gratified and relieved, however, that the same simple pleasures of playing with toy trains are not completely lost on today’s generation. Their play-imaginations are still intact and operational. I know that Linda feels the same way when we accompany our granddaughters to the American Girl doll store! Life goes on.