Computers and Lionel Trains

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.

C:\ _

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.


16 Comments on “Computers and Lionel Trains”

  1. Lee Koloze says:

    Jim. thanks for the memories. My Mom & Dad started me out in the late 40’s with the Lionel train set. Yes, I even still to this day I have the hat with the “L” embroidered on the front. I started out with the single control and after years I had the 4 control box. About 15 years ago I gave the collection to my Son. It had switches, milk car that dispensed cans, a log unloader car, search light car, gang repair car and a sundry of other stuff including a complete set of the Plastic Village buildings and people.

    As far as computers go – thank goodness in the 2nd year at Mendel Catholic High School, I took a business class that required typing. I thought, what was I going to do with typing ? That was for the girls at Mercy H.S. After the 3rd week the chart in the front of the room was missing and we had to type on our own. I think I got an A in the class. When I came on the job (CPD) in 1965 I was able to put 7 pieces of yellow paper and 6 sheets of carbon paper in the typewriter and generate a To – From (or in those days was it called a From – To) in about 3 minutes. Yes, I had my own box of carbon paper in my locker since the ones in the station would only let you read about 4 pages. That was about 1 hour less that the civilian aid took ( Miss Julie). So, I did receive a few free lunches for that………

    Jim, keep up the good work with your Blog. I do enjoy everything you post.


    • jimpadar says:

      Hi Lee, I gradually expanded my layout over the years until eventually it was 8′ X 16′ laid out on two sheets of plywood set on saw horses in our basement. Many an hour I spent lying on my back on the cement floor, under the layout, wiring all the signals, switches, and accessories. At some point I lost interest and packed things up for storage… then the floods came—my first year of college I think—and everything was trashed.

  2. jim Marino says:


    As always, your words trigger memories of the past. After reading Computers and Lionel Trains, I went down in the basement and pulled out my late brothers Lionel train set(1940 set). It still works. Great fun. Merry Christmas.

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks Jim. I’ve received several messages, on this board and privately about folks digging for the old train sets. What a great time of year to break them out for your kids, or your grandkids!

  3. Silvia says:

    I enjoy the art of story telling. You, my cyber friend, are a master!

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks Silvia. I’ve reached the point in my life where I do not opt to do anything that is not fun… and I’m having fun writing for the blog. I am glad you are enjoying it also.

  4. Rebecca says:

    I shared your story with a friend of mine yesterday. The WWII time frame and dates mentioned established that you two had similar experiences with the same trains at the time. His eyes began to glisten and shine because he knew you were one of the kids who really understood model railroading like he did, a real soul mate.He preceded to spend the next hour plus+ telling me about his train layout and -uh- somethings I had no knowledge of. Are there any stores or clubs in the area where men meet to discuss trains of this era and share their memories? That information would be a true Christmas gift.

    Thank you so much for starting this wonderful blog. It is a real treasure, not often found in the “interwebs.” And your writing ain’t half bad neither!

    • jimpadar says:

      Hi Rebecca. The train story seems to have struck a chord bringing back many fond memories. Sorry, while I am sure there are old timers out there who do model railroading, I don’t know of any off hand.

      And thanks for your comment on my writing… I think. 🙂

  5. Phil says:

    I was almost a year old when Pearl Harbor was attacked. So that must mean I’m almost as old as you Jim. One Christmas morning, when I was 5 or 6 years old, I awoke to find Santa had brought a Lionel train set for me! It was set beneath our Christmas tree, but it didn’t encircle it. It was in the shape of a figure 8, and was placed directly in front of the tree. My father was an engineer for the Milwaukee Rail Road, so it was an appropriate gift for his youngest son. I had Two older brothers in their early teens, and they were very helpful in teaching me how to operate the train.

    There was a headlight in the engine, and the Caboose had lights inside that emitted a glow as the train traveled the track. (It was a wondrous site to see as the room darkened at night!) Since the configuration had a crossing in the middle to form the figure Eight, there was also a “Rail Crossing figure” that had Red flashing lights on it. Soft cotton was placed at various points along the track, and embedded in it were lead figures of tiny people.

    How amazed I was!

    Decorations for the trees of that time included the placement of many strands of “Tinsel” on each of the branches of the tree. I soon found out that when these tinsel strips would fall, they would strike the tracks and cause a short to the electrical system and sometimes stop the train or reverse it’s movement. Danger! I always had the problem of controlling the speed of the train. Too slow with the transformer, and the train wouldn’t get started, and needed a push to get it going. Then after it was moving, if the transformer was pushed too far, the train would jump the tracks. It was a chore to re-set the cars, so I soon learned not to go too fast.

    I still have the train set, track configuration, and the rail crossing sign. Unfortunately over the years, the transformer burned out and never was replaced. I’ve had thoughts to have the whole set re-conditioned since I now have a great-grand-son of the age of Two. It’s just about time for him to experience the joy and wonder of times gone bye!

  6. Jay Lyden says:

    Your story, good as always, has brought back two memories. In 1985 I started work on my first PC project and the consultant/trainer Grant taught us DOS and the software we needed. We each had our copy of “Running MS-DOS” as our bible. Grant was also a train fanatic. He had model trains and he traveled the world to ride on them. I couldn’t understand the strong attraction until our youngest grandson was about 2 and he started looking out our high-rise window at the trains below. Two years later we got him the “Polar Express” and now at 6 he is as fascinated as ever. Thanks again.

  7. scott says:

    Thanks Jim. You are a tremendous writer and I think the stories are great. I’ve been on the job for 24 years and its amazing how the stories connect with ones from my experience yet are unique as well. Keep writing!

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks for your comment Scott. You are correct… when a bunch of coppers get together and start telling stories they are all the same—except they are all different.

  8. Phil says:


    Pertaining to the question brought up by Rebecca in her 18 Dec. posting, I have some information for her. Chicagoland Lionel Railroad Club is a “Lionel” club meaning any brand of three rails “O” gauge model train. The web address, ( is where you can view it and see for yourself.

    I attended a mobile layout four years ago when it was at the LCCA convention in Rosemont. There are other train clubs in the Chicago area. There is an “S” gauge or American Flyer club. There are the Midwest High Railers and you can google the name for the web site.

    I hope this helps.


    PS: Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones, and a very Happy New Year!

  9. Mike says:

    This was, indeed, a great story. Thanks for posting it. My first train was a Christmas gift in 1949, when I was 2 years old… a very basic Lionel set with a simple steam locomotive, tender, black open NYC gondola, orange “Baby Ruth” box car and red caboose, on an oval of track mounted to a plywood board. Whatever motivated my very-cash-strapped parents to get it, I don’t know; it must have cost them a bundle in late-40s dollars. I continued to love Lionel trains until a long hiatus began at age 10, when I received another wonderful Christmas gift — a Remco radio kit, consisting of a crystal detector and a one transistor audio amplifier, with a single headphone. It only picked up the local AM station, but I was hooked on radio. I became a ham radio operator during what many now consider the twilight of its “Golden Age,” as the decade of the 60s dawned; I built a lot of my own equipment and used it to “work the world.” And I still do. But recently, upon seeing the movie “The Polar Express,” the train bug bit again when my 27-year-old daughter and I visited a botanical garden at Christmas time and saw a magnificent layout. She told me, and I never expected such a comment: “I want you to put trains under the Christmas tree again, like when my sister and I were little.” My old trains, which used to come out of storage at Christmas, had been sold years before when we were cash-strapped; but resistance, I discovered, was futile. I “broke bad” and bought a Lionel O-gauge Polar Express set. It wasn’t exactly cheap; but the first time I set it up right out-of-the-box to try it out, the feeling came over me that there was no way so much fun could be had for so relatively little. The locomotive headlight, its green marker lamps, and the glow from the lighted passenger car windows, complete with silhouettes of happy passengers is magic when the room is dark; and the silhouette of the lone boy seated in the back of the otherwise vacant observation car is so poignant. My daughters don’t yet know that I have this set; they’re going to be blown away next Christmas. And if I ever have grandkids, I’m positive they will be too.

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