Thursday, April 23, 2009

Object Lesson #1 - Lionel's 752E and technology

Any object can be a historic artifact. It can tell you the technological level of the culture it was created in, the values of that culture, how the object was used, and something about the person who owned it.

Knowing my interest in such things, Ken recently brought in a toy train his father-in-law had purchased back in 1934. Here’s what that object has to say.

The toy train in question is Lionel’s 752E Union Pacific passenger set. It was modeled after a new streamlined train of the same name debuted by the Union Pacific.

Level of technology

When the Lionel made the Union Pacific streamliner in 1934, they used the most common materials for mechanical toys: metal.

The body is stamped sheet metal with a die-cast underbody and nose. Pretty much the only non-metal parts are the windows, which are celluloid (clear plastic hadn't been perfected yet), and the tiny colored headlamps. The lettering was all hand-stamped.

There's more to the technology story, though. The train’s illuminated interior is provided by miniature glass light bulbs -- (now we'd use LEDs). Power comes from an AC outlet and sent over the three rail track. The train draws power from the center rail through a sliding pickup shoe. Pretty sophisticated electronics for the time, and still basically the way electric toy trains work today.

What's different is the transformer. This particular set didn't come with one -- you had to buy it separately. The one in the box featured a sliding dial, along with a Lionel rheostat. At the time, toy train transformers were basically a series of posts with contacts on the top of the transformer box. You slid the dial from one post to the next to complete the circuit. Each post provided a different amount of constant power.

If you tried running a toy train with it, the effect was pretty much like driving by either jamming on the brake or the gas pedal – no in between. In order to have a continuous increase from low to high power, you set the level of current from the transformer, and then fed it through the rheostat and then to the track.

Very crude by today’s standards, but state-of-the-art in 1934!

Part 2: Lionel's 752E and Cultural Values
Part 3: Lionel's 752E and Its Function
Part 4: Lionel's 752E and Its Owner

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