Computers and Lionel TrainsPosted: December 16, 2011 Follow @JimPadar
I love computers. My first, in 1980, was a Sinclair Z80, an invention by a guy named Clive Sinclair. By today’s standards, “primitive” would be a gross understatement. In 1982 came the Radio Shack TRS80 Model II, the Model I having been something less than a success. From that point forward things just became crazy and keeping up with technology separated many from their hard earned money. These were “command line” machines with nothing more on the screen than the “C-prompt” and a blinking cursor.
Learning the DOS commands was like learning another language, but the satisfaction was immense as we coaxed these mysterious boxes into doing our bidding. In the late 1980’s Windows began to gain some acceptance and slowly the terms “click,” “drag,” and “drop” became commonplace. People no longer learned the language of the command line. It’s there, buried in the sub menus of your flashy color Windows screen. Those of us who know where it is can still mystify our friends, but today it is generally only used for advanced configuration problems or in cases of dire emergency.
On occasion when family or friends buy a new computer, they will call me and ask if I can help them set it up.
“Only if I can open the boxes.” is my reply. They are quizzical, but they comply.
Once at their home or office, we open the boxes and carefully free the units from their cardboard and styrofoam constraints. There is nothing like the smell of freshly unwrapped electronics!
Together we place them in a classical layout, tower, monitor, mouse, keyboard—each is appropriately connected via its corresponding cable and after a careful check and double check we turn the power on. The hard drive clicks and whirs and in a moment the monitor bursts forth with the welcome screen.
Configuration and software installation is next and this is what makes the machine your own personal tool. When it’s done and you open your browser, voila, you are connected to far flung places.
They thank me and I say, “No, thank you. Letting me help you set up your computer is like your best friend asking you over to help you set up his new electric train.” The look on their face tells me they don’t understand… they just don’t understand.
• • •
I was seven when World War II came to an end. One of the things that had disappeared from the toy scene during the war years was electric trains, but I was too young to even know that such a marvel had existed. It was Christmas 1946 and Lionel had just resumed production of their classic electric train sets but they were scarce. My uncle however, was store manager for a Woolworths and he sequestered two; one for his son and one for me. What a Christmas that was!
On Christmas Day my cousin and I peeled back the lid on my carton.
We opened the individual boxes inside, and carefully freed the units from their cardboard and corrugated wrapping. You could smell the fresh enamel on the engine and freight cars. There is no similar smell today—it must have been the lead based paint.
Together we placed the pieces in the classical layout, transformer, simple oval track, steam engine, coal car and sundry freight cars. Two wires are run from the transformer to the special connector on the three rail track. The engine, coal car and freight cars are carefully set on the track and coupled together. The exact order of the freight cars and the shape of the oval is what made your train your own personal layout.
Then, after a careful check and double check, a cautious turn of the transformer control started the train rolling and voila!
You pucker your lips slightly, “Woooo… woo,” and your imagination transports you to far flung places.
In following years as electric trains became more plentiful, it became established custom: you only invited your very best friend to help you unpack your new Lionel or American Flyer train set.
• • •
“Electric trains. Lionel!” I repeat in exasperation as we pack up the empty computer cartons
“Lionelle? You mean lioness.”
“Forget it.” I say politely. They will never understand the connection. Pity.