When I was a boy my father used to take me during the Christmas season to model railroad layouts in Connecticut and New Jersey. My grandfather worked for the U.S. postal system on a mail car during and after the Great Depression. My dad, in an effort to remain connected with his youth and his father, became a noted collector of American Flyer toy trains, the second most popular brand behind Lionel. I was always enthralled by stories of how special mail cars of the era deployed special hooks that grabbed heavy bags of mail at speeds as high as 70 mph as the train sped by and swung them onboard for sorting and processing. My favorite piece in my father’s collection was a car, similar to the one Dick Chapman worked in in the 1930s, that snatched plastic bags of “mail” from a small model lanyard placed on the living room floor of The Bronx apartment building I grew up in.
These layouts were privately run by toy train enthusiasts and were often situated in homes and strip mall stores rented or leased by a model railroad club. Admission was never expensive and even free in some cases. Inside, you were transported into a miniature world where you could watch in all their electro-mechanical glory intricate representations of different railroads and the cities and towns they traversed and bisected. The more realistic, and colorful the display, the more people flocked to attend. In a sense, toy train clubs were the virtual reality of their day.
The people, almost exclusively men, who staffed and maintained the layouts, were divided into two basic types— switch masters and hobbyists. It was the job of the switch masters to design the track schematic, wire the switches, then test and refine the layout. The best were masterpieces of precision and synchronicity, featuring long lines of cars performing intricate ballets of maneuver and progression, highlighted usually by the threat of an imminent head-on collision that was always avoided at the last minute by a timely switch to another track or a concealed sharp turn leading away from disaster. If you enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together to see how they worked, you became a switch master.
Hobbyists were the layout’s aesthetes. They obsessed over creating miniature landscapes and vistas that mimicked the real one as closely as could be achieved with paint, rubber shrubbery, and plastic people and houses. If you weren’t afraid of cutting yourself with an X-Acto knife, didn’t mind mixing Testors paint, and discovered you had a talent for sketching and perhaps drawing, you became a hobbyist.
If you joined a model train club, you quickly discovered a constant tension existed between the two types of members and that you were expected to pick a side and stay loyal to it. Would you become a switch master and make the layout work? Or a hobbyist and make it beautiful? Switch masters were always adding new permutations to the layout that required the hobbyists to rip up many square feet of carefully constructed miniature landscape. The hobbyists objected to the ugliness and chaos that descended over the layout during these periods of transition. The switch masters tended to regard the hobbyists as fuddie duddies who didn’t understand that the layout was the club’s heart and needed to grow and evolve in order to remain interesting.
This philosophical divide was in place in the 1950s and early 1960s at MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club. In his seminal work Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Steven Levy describes how the club’s switch masters discovered the first distributed DEC computing systems, particularly the TX-0, that were starting to appear on college campuses. Many members became enthralled by the challenge of controlling switching arrays that transcended anything they could find in a model train layout. These pioneers became the first generation of hackers, people for whom complete and open access to computer systems became a life-long quest and often an obsession. The early hackers had little patience with craftsmen and hobbyists and open systems became the era’s sine qua non.