A brief history of model engineering
Author: Jamie Taylor
“What have model engineers ever done for us,” you may ask? Well, more than you might think. Today's model engineers come from a venerable line of boundary-pushing, risk-taking visionaries. Without the graft and innovation of these hardy souls, the history of the railways would be very different.
In fact, it's from model engineering that we can trace the birth of the steam-powered railway.
In the late eighteenth century, with full-sized prototypes expensive and dangerous to make, early pioneers turned to modelling as a way of proving their ideas.
The first working model locomotive was built by William Murdoch in 1784 and was said to be able to reach 8 miles per hour, a frightening speed for the time.
Richard Trevithick, who perfected his ideas building models of movable winding engines, took up this spirit of experimental model-making with gusto. What he learnt from building one of his earliest models, a 43/4 " version of his Camborne road locomotive, led (via a five hundred guineas bet) to him creating Penydarren, the world's first railway locomotive.
Even the great George Stephenson cut his teeth modelling. It is said that he built replicas of his father's Newcomen pumps from clay and reeds before he even learned to write. (It’s worth noting that he didn't become literate until he was at least eighteen years old, but the point still stands.) Later in life he would turn to modelling to help him demonstrate his new locomotives to prospective buyers. The model he commissioned of his Planet type locomotive is one of the earliest professionally produced models of an already existing locomotive.
Modelling didn’t remain the purview of engineers for long. Soon these miniature locomotives could be found in the windows of clockmakers and jewellers, who used them to advertise their skill and talent. With rail technology still in its infancy, it was to these craftsmen that engineers turned to help build their working models. The reliance on their skill can be seen especially in Timothy Hackworth's 41/4" model of Sans Pareil, which includes gears and flywheels of the type found in grandfather clocks.
It wasn’t long before amateurs got in on the act as well. One of the earliest models built for fun was made by an unnamed boy in 1833 and is based on the early prototypes of Stephenson, Hackworth and Hedley. By the late 1850s, models of popular locomotives from the Great Western Railway were being built, and novelty items such as hot toddy makers and drink-delivering trains could be found on the tables of the well-to-do.
Despite the railway mania of the time, modelling was still a relatively obscure pastime. To build a working model you needed to be a skilled draughtsman, pattern maker, foundry man, turner, machinist, fitter, boilermaker, plumber, sheet metal worker and painter. To find these skills in one person is rare today. To find them in the mid-19th century would have been even harder. Add the requirement for specialist equipment and tools such as lathes and milling machines and it is obvious why the hobby didn’t initially take off.
This began to change from 1860 onwards when manuals and pamphlets were published that detailed the model-making process. As well as sharing skills and knowledge they also had the effect of bringing solitary makers into contact with one another. These publications encouraged people to communicate with like-minded souls and offered a medium for advertisements for local shops and craftspeople that could help provide parts which were outside an individual builder's skill set.
Social conditions were changing, with working people increasingly having more of the time, space and resources required to pursue such an epic undertaking as building a model locomotive.
Such pursuits were actively encouraged in boys due to the perception of engineering as a worthy and useful profession. Combining engineering, science and mathematics with an ethos of self-improvement through building things, it's clear why many well-meaning parents encouraged their sons into the hobby. Indeed, many model makers who later went on to become notable engineers saw it as essential training and attributed their later success to their youthful hobby.
So next time you take a ride on the latest Azuma, just remember, somewhere down the line a model engineer helped build that.