If you’re like me, then the closest thing to a model train you’ve played with is a Hot Wheels toy car, complete with a pre-designed shark pirate robot ninja track. I could always tell that a book I read was decades-old when the winsome rascal received a model train under the Christmas tree. But little did I know that this old-fashioned hobby was still alive in the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC).
Started in 1947 and now 64 years old, TMRC is one of the oldest clubs at MIT — with a history to match. The club’s Tech Nickel Plate Railroad was moved to building N52 in 1997 when Building 20 was torn down to make way for the Stata Center. The only side of the track most people see is facing a large glass window, showing off an impressive city scene and a model of the Green Building on which Tetris can be played. But come to their meetings on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. and Saturday nights at 6 p.m., and you can see the full lay of the land.
An incredible amount of detail and devotion was put into the hand-laid track, modeled on the Boston and Albany Railroad connecting Boston, Massachusetts and Albany, New York. Scale models of Boston buildings, tiny people undergoing tiny altercations, and trees made out of real twigs are all present in 1 to 87.1 scale, known as Half Original (HO) scale. Some details you might not notice at first glance include a tin-can telephone strung between two houses and a railroad crossing gate that actually moves and rings when a train passes it. The track features several industrial areas, including a freight yard and a staging yard.
“We have built what is fundamentally an urban railroad, which is unusual in model railroads,” said Andrew S. Miller ’63, club member since 1960.
So how does the train work? It’s a lot more complicated than simply turning the power on.
“The big challenge with model railroads is, ‘How do you control more than one train at a time on the railroad?’” Miller explained.
“Locomotives get their power through the track. If you just put 12 volts DC on the track, every locomotive on the railroad will pick up and move at once. You’ve got to be able to control just some trains and leave the rest of the railroad alone. That’s classically done by dividing the railroad into [train-sized] blocks.”
The complexity of the electrical systems used to run the trains — a whole city’s worth of phone relays — taught club members to become the first computer hackers. The club’s ranks have included Alan Kotok ’62, former associate chairman of the World Wide Web Consortium, Richard E. Greenblatt PhD ’74, one of the designers of MIT’s Lisp machine, and Rodger E. Doxsey ’69, a major contributor to the Hubble Space Telescope. In its heyday, the club had over 100 people. It currently has about 10 active members — a mix of alumni and students.
One reason for the club’s persistence is its appeal to people with different skills. Eliza Kosoy, a sophomore club member, joined her freshman year because her hobby was making miniature dollhouses, but The Tech’s Technology Director, Quentin E. Smith ’10, joined purely for the control systems. “We have mechanical engineers. We have artists and computer scientists. There aren’t many clubs like this [that don’t focus on only one thing],” Smith said.
The track is in a constant state of improvement as the club members add buildings, bridges, and even an upper level. For the current members, TMRC provides an opportunity to “engineer for the fun of it” and contribute to a lasting monument.
“Every little detail is appreciated. What you build now could still be here in 50 years,” said Kosoy.