The History of Model Train Sizes
Children and enthusiasts alike have long marveled at the ingenuity and detail of replica model trains. The fascination and intrigue grows in many of us when we are little boys and girls and only flourishes and blossoms as we get older and develop an eye for detail.
Modeling rail transports began in Germany in the 1830s when miniature trains were pushed along a track. They were crafted from a mold, using molten brass or tin. But the scales of the trains weren’t uniform. The model trains, when placed alongside each other, didn’t match the scales of their larger, functioning counterparts. They were merely toys rather than authentic miniatures.
Scales were developed by hobby groups and enthusiasts across the globe. They came up with a unit of measurement that would correlate between the model and the full sized, operational train. The history of the creation and adoption of these scales, is a history as fascinating as the growth of the model trains themselves.
The O Scale
The O scale was one of the first scales to be used for model trains. When manufacturers began making model trains in the 19th century, they were made in a variety of different sizes, each given a number. It wasn’t until 1910, when the Ives Co. constructed a track narrower than the size number 1, that the O scale was born.
Once companies like Lionel and Marx began producing models in this size it really caught on. It spread quickly across the globe. The O scale remained popular in the US until the 60s. It wasn’t until the adoption of the smaller HO scale that the O scale began to decline in popularity. The size of the O scale made it perfect for making toy trains, but the larger size was impractical for enthusiasts who wanted something authentic and realistic, with the capability of mapping much larger spaces in their model railways.
Today O scale trains remain popular with hobbyists who crave finer details, as the larger scale allows far more detail to be included in the model.
The HO is the most common scale used globally. The history of the HO scale dates back to the end of the First World War. The O scale was far too large for most homes at the time and was impractical. A German company named Bing began making smaller tabletop railway sets with the smaller track gauge of 16.5mm in 1922. The model scale of 1:87 was selected and they named this size OO or HO. Another German company, Märklin, adopted the same scale when it produced its gauge track in 1935 and the scale grew in popularity from there.
When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, manufacturers in the UK were looking for a smaller, cheaper alternative to the O scale and quickly adopted the HO sizes. After World War II, models became more than toys. Enthusiasts wanted the models to accurately represent functioning trains, so the HO scale was rolled out globally and really took off. The smaller HO scale allowed modellers to cover many more miles in their landscapes and include more details. Today, the HO scale makes up around 74% of models.
The On30 scale uses the O scale, but on a HO gauge track. In the US this is a 1:48 scale, in the UK and France it is 1:43.5 and in the rest of Europe the scale uses 1:45. The On30 scale didn’t gain traction until the 1950s. The scale developed popularity from several high-profile prototype railways which were created using this scale.
In the US, the Venango Valley by Bill Livingstone in 1971 gained the scale notoriety. In Australia, Rick Richardson’s Vulcan Vale model railway generated fame for the scale, but the On30 scale was still very much a minority.
Now the scale is one of the fastest growing segment of the US market and is undergoing something of a resurgence.
The N scale was developed in Europe in the 1960s for houses which couldn’t accommodate the larger scales, which were popular in the US at the time. It was commercially launched in 1962, by model manufacturer, Arnold, in Nuremburg. It got its name from the 9mm space between the rails and was called “N” for “nine”.
The scale was perfect for smaller living spaces as it is half the size of the HO scale. For this reason, N scale models have a large following in Japan where living quarters are smaller. N scale has also been adopted by modellers looking to create an expansive and authentic world, as the smaller scale allows modellers to include more detail and more complexity in their landscape.
G scale got its name from the German word groß, meaning big. Although some still attribute the G to the scale’s popularity with garden railway modelers. These trains are much larger, with a scale of 1:22.5 and many hobbyists who use this scale have much larger, outdoor model train sets. The scale began in 1968 when the German manufacturer, Lehmenn began producing the LGB line of trains. These trains were specifically designed to be able to be used indoors and outdoors.
Since then, Lehmann have been bought by Märklin. There are not many lines produced in the G scale, as many enthusiasts prefer smaller models, but there are still some models available.
Z scale is the most recent addition to the model railway industry. Nicknamed little Z for its tiny 1:220 proportion, Märklin introduced this scale to the model railway market in 1972. They opted to name the scale ‘Z’ because they didn’t think there would be another scale designed smaller than the Z scale. There are now smaller scales, but these are very niche. There is a 1:450 scale being manufactured in China but it doesn’t have anywhere near the interest that the Z scale does.
Initially, because of the smaller scale and the detail involved, Z scale models were more expensive than their larger counterparts. But since manufacturing techniques have become more efficient, the prices have dropped dramatically.
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