Model Railroading is Sophisticated, Vol. 5

Story 1:

I participate with a group in a movie club.  The other night, we watched Spike Jonze's Her. In a well composed scene, Joaquin Phoenix's character, Theodore, is walking among the trees and knee-deep snow. In the distant background (and not really intended for the viewer), one could make out structures on the far ridge line.

Snowsheds... My mind ticks over.

Intractably, "That's Donner," I wail.  A moment later, I turn to my brother and say, "in a theater full of people, only a railfan would place the snowsheds in the background."

To which my brother replies, "Yeah, only the railfans and the cannibals."

Story 2:

The etymology of the word 'hack/hacker' (as in, "Russia hacked my email!") can be traced through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) model railroad club. The Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) was organized in the 1946-1947 school year, and according to the groups website, it is one of the oldest clubs at MIT.

In a March 6, 2014 article in The New Yorker, the origins of the word 'hack' are first documented in the April 1955 TMRC meeting minutes. It says, "anyone working or hacking on the electrical system turn the power off to avoid fuse blowing." According to the president of the American Dialect Society, Jesse Sheidlower, the term held the more benign meaning of simply working on a tech problem. The club was composed of several sub-groups, and according to Ben Zimmer, a language columnist at The Wall Street Journal, the term took on more modern connotations as individuals from one group pranked the system-based telephone relays to mess with railroad operators. When this kind of ritualistic hazing occurred, members would have to "hack" the system in an attempt to solve the problem.  In time, the term became how it is known today.

Story 3: 

In early 1928, Charles Mintz, a film distributer associated with Universal Studios, demanded that a young Walt Disney take a budget cut for the production of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Mintz positioned this conversation by informing Disney that most of his current staff were now on contract with him. Disney refused, and he walked away from the cartoon character that was a success in its time. This event catalyzed the creation of Disney studios. Following his meeting with Mintz, Disney boarded the train in California to return home. On this ride, Mickey Mouse was conceptualized.

In 1947, Disney built a model train in his Disney Studio's office--noteworthy because Disney was committed to his business in such a way that this seemed to surprise some people. By 1948, Disney was working long hours, seven days a week. The staff nurse insisted that he take break for the sake of his health. According to Ward Kimball, an associate in the Disney Studio, this gave rise to the first vacation Disney ever took. It was to the Chicago Railroad Fair. Thereafter, he set up a machine shop at the Disney studio for the explicit purpose of building a locomotive, where Disney himself would often work on the project. This locomotive became the well-known Lilly Belle. From there, it was the Carolwood Pacific, Disneyland Railroad, and then a mass-media empire. 

So, here is the question: What do cannibals, neo-computer hackers and great creative geniuses have in common?

Answer: one thing: railroads and model railroaders. (Mic drop!)  And with that, I rest my case: model railroading is sophisticated. 

Blaine Hadfield


2 Responses

Bruce Bowie
Bruce Bowie

May 22, 2017

Blaine, I came across your blog through today’s ExactRail email. I have enjoyed your writing. As editor of NMRA, Mid-Central Region, Division 4 (Cleveland and surrounding counties) I would very much like to use your writing in our newsletter. I would of course credit you. What do you think??

Rick Arai
Rick Arai

May 12, 2017

Blaine, I really enjoy reading your articles. Not only is model railroading very sophisticated, The way in which your articles are written is also very sophisticated. Well done!!

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