Chapter 2: The Long Road to N
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To build a bit of context for N Scale's origins, we need to step back to the late 1800s, when the more popular scales included 3 Gauge, 2 Gauge and 1 Gauge, at proportions of approximately 1:22, 1:29 and 1:32, respectively (5 and 4 Gauges had also existed). These were large toys not generally suited for indoor use; indeed, some were live steam. Of them, 1 Gauge was the favorite through the end of the Nineteenth Century.
Around the turn of the Twentieth Century, 0 (zero) Gauge, a.k.a. O Scale (nominally 1:48), was introduced by Märklin of Germany. Owing to the economic pressures of World War II and the Great Depression, 0 Gauge gradually gained favor over 1 Gauge. But toy manufacturers didn't stop going smaller, and in 1922 Bing of Germany created wind-up toys in 00, or double-0, or H0 (half-zero), or, as it's known today, HO Scale; electrically-powered trains followed a year later.
By the 1950s, H0 had begun to overtake all other scales, eventually becoming—and remaining—the most popular model railroading scale in the world. But that's a whole big long story all its own, with all manner of wrinkles and intrigue...
Manufacturers had, for quite a long time, been tinkering with toy trains that were smaller still. Ironically, the first appearance of roughly N Scale trains actually predated H0 Scale by a decade when, in 1912, Bing produced a line of tinplate push-along (or "floor") trains with a gauge of roughly 9 mm. This model of the George the Fifth locomotive resides in the Brighton Toy and Model Museum:
In 1923—the same year that electrically-powered H0 Scale trains arrived—H.B. Whall of Kew, Great Britain, built an electrically-powered model railway at a scale of 1:152.3, with a track gauge of 9.2 mm. Contemporaries of Whall included A.R. Walkley, who built a functional locomotive at about the same scale in 1927 (as well as one at 1:300!), and J.J. Langridge, who did the same a year later.
By 1946, Whall had formally established the scale as 2 mm to the foot, 1:150, with a gauge of 9.5 mm, and began selling components he'd made himself—such as motors and mechanisms—to like-minded modelers; he also founded the 2 mm Scale Association in 1960, which survives to this day. However, to suggest this constituted the first commercial example of N Scale is stretching the truth; there were no mass-produced models sold to the public. In fact, it could be argued that it would not have been commercially viable given the manufacturing tolerances required, because these were models, not toys.
Backtracking just a bit, we have QOO Scale, mentioned in the Australian Model Railway Association, with a scale of 1:174 and 7.62 mm track. Another reference suggests that it was introduced possibly as early as 1938, and was also referred to as HHO Scale. Then we have HH Scale, with a ratio of 1:150 and 9.6 mm gauge track, which was evidently manufactured in Sweden from 1942 to 1943. Other than very brief mentions in a 1948 issue of Model Railroader and a 1954 issue of Popular Science, no further information is available.
The German toy company Steiger introduced Mignon, an electric model railway at a scale of about 1:140, with 10 mm gauge track, in 1947; you can see these trains running here and here. That same year, F.E.M. (Ferrovie Elettriche in Miniatura) of Italy created an intriguing line of 1:172 model trains. Running on 8 mm track at 20 volts AC, the crude locos were powered by vibratory or "buzzer" mechanisms instead of motors; the track was a stamped solid metal plate with ridges for rails (and no ties), and the overhead catenary wire was live. Both product lines disappeared after four or five years.
Again in 1947, Carl-Erik Nordstrand, owner of TfA:s Hobbytjänst in Stockholm, Sweden, introduced HOO Scale, with a ratio of 1:152 and a track gauge of 10 mm. Curiously, the "original table-top model trains" focused exclusively on U.S. prototypes. Trains ran on 2-rail track at 12 VDC, and the motors had roller bearings!
The December 1949 issue of Model Railroader featured a small ad (right) touting "Micro Trains" (not to be confused with Kadee Micro-Trains, Revell MicroTrains or Sony Microtrains), which were imported by Model Railroad Specialty Company in Jackson, Michigan. The ad claims the scale was introduced in 1946, but I can find no evidence of this.
Below is a very rare glimpse of their "Casey Jones" kits (courtesy of a years-old online auction), which included a cast zinc NYC Hudson J-3A steam locomotive and an assortment of plastic passenger and freight cars. Although the models were said to be very well made for their day, the line failed; had it not, this may well have marked the birth of N Scale—sixteen years ahead of schedule.
Then around 1948, K of Milano, Italy, produced a line called Cappa: powered trains at 1:150, with 10 mm gauge track. Oddly, despite being a DC system, the track was three-rail; track sections were cast as one-piece solid metal parts, with insulated brass rails running down the center. The line even included electrically-powered turnouts and uncouplers.
Also, Kersting Modellwerkstätten GmbH presented a remarkably good-looking, electrically-powered train set (below) they evidently called K Gauge, at a scale of 1:174 with 8 mm gauge track, at the 1948 Hannover Fair. However, it never went into production.
At any rate, it would seem there were no further attempts to develop N Scale-ish toy trains for nearly a decade, which is intriguing: why the loss of interest? Was everything that happened up until this point merely a passing fad? Also, why does it appear as if Europe was the only region of the world with an established history of making small toy trains prior to the 1950s? Nürnberg may hold the key.
1957: Lone Star Toys of Great Britain created a line of die-cast push-along toys in 000 Gauge (a.k.a. Treble-0), with an approximate scale of 1:152 and 8.25 mm gauge track, called Lone Star Locos. And in 1960, Lone Star introduced Treble-0-Lectric, billed as the first electrically-powered 000 Gauge model railway, with 9 mm track; you can see it running here. While still relatively toy-like, the models were better than any of its predecessors (barring, of course, Whall's efforts). This is arguably the point at which N was on the cusp of becoming a "mainstream" model railroading scale.
The Treble-0-Lectric line grew quickly, eventually comprising over a hundred items, which even included some North American trains. Unfortunately, the drive mechanism in the locomotives employed rubber bands instead of gears, and between poor performance and new competition, the line was doomed; production halted in 1964.
Enter Karl Arnold & Co of Nürnberg, who in 1960 launched their own new line of tiny electric trains, which had been under development since 1958. Originally called Rapido 200—with a scale of 1:200 and 8.5 mm track—the products were quite crude, and in some respects not even as good as Lone Star's toys; Treble-0 trains at least had functional couplers, whereas Arnold's just had C-shaped metal hooks. Locos ran on 6 VDC, instead of the usual 12. However, even though Arnold claimed their Rapido 200 series was 1:200, the cars actually scaled out quite close to 1:160, so one could almost argue that modern N Scale was born in 1960.
At any rate, by 1962 Arnold had totally reengineered the entire Rapido line: they bumped the published model scale to 1:160, the track gauge to 9 mm, and the voltage to 12 VDC. A year later, they adapted an automatic coupler design from Rokal, a leading manufacturer of TT Scale at the time, and, in a brilliant move—which was actually recommended by American consultant Ted Brandon—allowed other manufacturers to license their new coupler; thus the "Rapido coupler" (right) soon became the worldwide de facto standard. Plus, Arnold helped establish a number of other standards—something larger scales were lacking—which in turn helped grow the market quickly. This is widely considered the birth of "true" N Scale, and the significance of the coupler's adoption by the industry cannot be overstated.
Meanwhile, Trix Modelleisenbahn GmbH & Co. KG, also of Nürnberg, had been competing with Lone Star's push-along line since 1958. Called Minitrix, these 1:180 toys were accurately proportioned and finely detailed for their day (although there was no track, unlike Treble-0-Trains). But Trix soon began developing electrically-powered Minitrix trains, and in 1964 unveiled their new Minitrix Electric line, which matched the scale and track gauge of Arnold Rapido.
Of note, Trix's products were technically and aesthetically far superior to Arnold's, which may have helped accelerate Arnold's improvements in quality; indeed, it could be argued that Trix was largely responsible for the transition from toy to model N Scale trains. Also of note, Minitrix Electric trains originally had hook-and-loop couplers much like Lone Star's, but by 1965 they'd adopted the Rapido coupler. The following year, their push-along line quietly disappeared, as too did "Electric" from the name.
As a viable modeling scale, N had arrived.
Summary: The Long Road to N
Although the road to N Scale was littered with the detritus of detours and dead ends, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Meanwhile, for some amusing observations on the scale's supposed future, please enjoy hobby shop owner predictions from 1968.
What's N Scale? < The Long Road to N > The Great Expansion
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