Book Review: The Boys’ Book of Model Railroading

“The Boys' Book of Model Railroading” by Raymond F. YatesIn the years before World War II, Lionel was the leader in the U.S. in manufacturing of model railroad equipment, specialising in “tinplate” models which were often unrealistic in scale, painted in garish colours, and appealing to young children and the mothers who bought them as gifts. During the war, the company turned to production of items for the U.S. Navy. After the war, the company returned to the model railroad market, remaking their product line with more realistic models. This coincided with the arrival of the baby boom generation, which, as the boys grew up, had an unlimited appetite for ever more complicated and realistic model railroads, which Lionel was eager to meet with simple, rugged, and affordable gear which set the standard for model railroading for a generation.

This book, published in 1951, just as Lionel was reaching the peak of its success, was written by Raymond F. Yates, author of earlier classics such as A Boy and a Battery and A Boy and a Motor, which were perennially wait-listed at the public library when I was a kid during the 1950s. The book starts with the basics of electricity, then moves on to a totally Lionel-based view of the model railroading hobby. There are numerous do-it-yourself projects, ranging from building simple scenery to complex remote-controlled projects with both mechanical and electrical actuation. There is even a section on replacing the unsightly centre third rail of Lionel O-gauge track with a subtle third rail located to the side of the track which the author notes “should be undertaken only if you are prepared to do a lot of work and if you know how to use a soldering iron.” Imagine what this requires for transmitting current across switches and crossovers! Although I read this book, back in the day, I’m glad I never went that deeply down the rabbit hole.

I learned a few things here I never stumbled across while running my Lionel oval layout during the Eisenhower administration or in engineering school many years later. For example: why did Lionel opt for AC power and a three rail system rather than the obvious approach of DC motors and two rails, which makes it easier, for example, to reverse trains and looks more like the real thing? The answer is that a three rail system with AC power is symmetrical, and allows all kinds of complicated geometries in layouts without worrying about cross-polarity connections on junctions. AC power allows using inexpensive transformers to run the layout from mains power without rectifiers which, in the 1950s, would have meant messy and inefficient selenium stacks prone to blowing up into toxic garlic-smelling fumes if mistreated. But many of the Lionel remote control gizmos, such as the knuckle couplers, switches, semaphore signals, and that eternal favourite, the giraffe car, used solenoids as actuators. How could that work with AC power? Well, think about it—if you have a soft iron plunger within the coil, but not at its centre, when current is applied to the coil, the induced magnetic field will pull it into the centre of the coil. This force is independent of the direction of the current. So an alternating current will create a varying magnetic field which, averaged over the mechanical inertia of the plunger, will still pull it in as long as the solenoid is energised. In practice, running a solenoid on AC may result in a hum, buzz, or chatter, which can be avoided by including a shading coil, in which an induced current creates a magnetic field 90° out of phase to the alternating current in the main coil and smooths the magnetic field actuating the plunger. I never knew that; did you?

This is a book for boys. There is only a hint of the fanaticism to which the hobby of model railroading can be taken. We catch a whiff of it in the chapter about running the railroad on a published schedule, with telegraph connections between dispatchers and clocks modified to keep “scale time”. All in all, it was great fun then, and great fun to recall now. To see how far off the deep end O-gauge model railroading has gone since 1951, check out the Lionel Trains 2019 Catalogue.

This book is out of print, but used copies are readily available at a reasonable price.

Yates, Raymond F. The Boys’ Book of Model Railroading. New York: Harper & Row, 1951. ISBN 978-1-127-46606-1.

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Author: John Walker

Founder of Ratburger.org, Autodesk, Inc., and Marinchip Systems. Author of The Hacker's Diet. Creator of www.fourmilab.ch.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Boys’ Book of Model Railroading

  1. John Walker:
    In practice, running a solenoid on AC may result in a hum, buzz, or chatter, which can be avoided by including a shading coil, in which an induced current creates a magnetic field 90° out of phase to the alternating current in the main coil and smooths the magnetic field actuating the plunger. I never knew that; did you?

    Lot of industrial power switching is still done with AC solenoid coils.  Used to be ubiquitous, but the smaller stuff has all moved to 24V DC coils.  Simpler, and you can improve the mechanical reaction time–tailor it even–with careful choice of passive components.  You could do the big stuff with high voltage DC, but the normal arcing when opening HVDC contacts is rather difficult to snuff.

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  2. When I was in second grade my folks splurged for a Lionel train set for me.   It was intended to provide hours of self-directed pastime indoors.   I was confined to a tiny bedroom, and with the bed set diagonally across the middle of the room, I could make a figure-eight with the track that ran under the bed, and then loop around the headboard also.

    They needed something to occupy my time in my own little room, because that was the year I had measles, mumps and chicken pox in one year.   (It was also the year that turned me into a bookworm, since I had to homeschool myself; Mama was preoccupied with my sisters, both of whom also went through measles, mumps and chicken pox that year.)

    After Dad died two years ago, my old Lionel train was found lurking in his attic, wrapped in 1972 newspapers.   What a delight.   If I live long enough to retire, I will set it up again.   Thanks, Dad.

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  3. MJBubba:
    When I was in second grade my folks splurged for a Lionel train set for me.   It was intended to provide hours of self-directed pastime indoors.   I was confined to a tiny bedroom, and with the bed set diagonally across the middle of the room, I could make a figure-eight with the track that ran under the bed, and then loop around the headboard also.

    They needed something to occupy my time in my own little room, because that was the year I had measles, mumps and chicken pox in one year.   (It was also the year that turned me into a bookworm, since I had to homeschool myself; Mama was preoccupied with my sisters, both of whom also went through measles, mumps and chicken pox that year.)

    After Dad died two years ago, my old Lionel train was found lurking in his attic, wrapped in 1972 newspapers.   What a delight.   If I live long enough to retire, I will set it up again.   Thanks, Dad.

    It will probably be set up before California has high speed rail.

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  4. I missed this post, as I was traveling. Gosh, what memories it evokes. I didn’t have an insane set, but did have a nice one which challenged me and my next door buddy Larry, who was three years older. Many happy hours running wires under the table and up thought precisely-placed holes in it; always watching for the next upgrade. As I recall, I had an O-gauge Santa Fe Streamliner set on an elevated oval track running at the 6′ x 10′ table’s edges. Below and inside ran O-27 gauge (complete with switches and siding) Union Pacific and some old steam engine which made smoke from tablets put down the stack. I can still conjure the (??toxic??) smell! My memory of the two transformers is so sharp that if I worked like a 3-D printer, I could probably reproduce a good replica. I can only imagine what people make for model sets with 3-D printers nowadays.

    Unfortunately, my younger cousin got the whole thing when I lost interest and went away to college. I wasn’t consulted. It has occurred to me that they are probably collectors’ items and may be quite valuable. I kept them in perfect condition.

    I don’t know how extensive the Lionel Company was, but they had a manufacturing facility and sales shop in Hillside NJ only a few miles from where I grew up in Elizabeth. It was a great thrill to go there- whether for repairs (things were actually repaired back then) or shopping for accoutrements. These memories are powerful and bittersweet. Thank you, John.

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