Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Tender Trap

A major auction house that specializes in antique toys recently published this picture in a sale catalog. It made me seriously question exactly how much expertise this firm really had.

Notice anything wrong? The tender's backwards.

One of the things that really irritates me as a toy train enthusiast is a backwards tender. The tender is the car that trails immediately behind a steam locomotive. It's where the fuel for the locomotive is stored, (wood or coal), and sometimes extra water for the steam engine.

Most people picture something like this for the archetypal of a steam engine and tender.

The walls of the tender, open towards the engine, slant upwards in the back. Actual tender design from the late 1800's on favored a more rectangular appearance with slightly higher walls in the front. Nevertheless, the archetype remains, popularized in children's book illustrations and other media.

As a result, when people with no real knowledge of trains display a toy steam locomotive and tender, they often have the tender facing the wrong way. Why? Because having the smaller end of the tender next to the locomotive more closely fits the archetype, and "looks right."

So what? Without specialized knowledge, how would someone know that the proper way to display the switch engine below is to have the large end of the tender face the locomotive? After all, that's just ignorance.

However, almost all toy train manufacturers for about a century have designed their tenders to only connect to their locomotives a certain way. The general-purpose coupler that hooks the toy railroad cars together, be it a latch design or more realistic knuckle coupler, can be found at one end of the tender. The engine usually has a completely different coupler -- and its match is only found on one end of the tender.

In other words, for just about any make of toy trains, it's impossible to connect freight or passenger cars directly to the steam engine -- and it's impossible to connect the tender to the engine backwards.

Let's take a closer look at that offending catalog photo. Notice the tender's latch-style coupler in the pairing at left -- and how it doesn't match with the pin on the back of the engine. Now look what happens when we reverse the tender (right). Now there's a tab connector with a hole that matches the pin.

Here's another example, this time from eBay.

In the postwar era, toy trains became more sophisticated, adding whistles and other sound effects. As the motor occupied most of the locomotive's interior, these features were housed in the tender. Look closely at the photo and you can see the cables coming out of the tender. These wires connect the printed circuit boards in the tender with the compatible components in the engine. There's a simple pin on the back of the locomotive, and several terminals for the wire. Yet the person chose to photograph the tender backwards, to match the archetype.

Here's how it should look.

So in order to set up a toy locomotive and tender so that it "looks right," the person has to deliberately ignore the very clear evidence of the connectors. That's not just ignorance, that's willful ignorance.

And in the case of that auction house, it makes me call into question everything they had to say about the items offered. And that's bad for business.

- Ralph

1 comment:

  1. oh god, you are definitely not alone, I have cringed countless times at the sight of that, it just makes me want to go on a rant

    but I'm totally with you on this