Imagine a world where cabeese is the plural of caboose, a Freddy is a unit of electrical goodies, and a 30-kilometer train ride can take less than five minutes. A land where entire cities can be torn down and rebuilt on a whim, funded with the proceeds from a single Coke machine in the hall. This world may sound fictional, but in fact its the realm of the Tech Nickel Plate, a 1:87 scale model railroad line, whose engineers are the students and alumni of MITs Tech Model Railroad Club.
In 1946, when John Moore 49 and Walter Marvin 54 started the Tech Model Railroad Club, they couldnt have foreseen that 60 years later, long after highways and airplanes replaced passenger trains, students would still be hammering away at the track. They couldnt have known the club would cultivate some of the earliest computer pioneers and hackers, or that it would become, as Fred Hapgood described it in Up the Infinite Corridor, a combination fraternal organization, neighborhood bar, wilderness hut, and safe house, an oasis of communitas in a culture that otherwise held its members up to the most scary sort of individual inspection. They, like many young men in the 1940s, simply wanted a way to turn their fascination with railroading into a hobby. But the hobby was expensive: an elaborate layout took up considerable space, and locomotives and scenery were costly. By starting a club, Moore and Marvin were able to secure a room on campus to house the layout and pool resources with other club members to defray costs. (Later, a Coke machine owned and operated by the club would bring in thousands of dollars.)
But more than space and money, creating and maintaining their model empire required a level of dedication that bordered on obsession. From the clubs start, students spent endless hours solving problems of topography, scheduling, switching theory, and logical design, not to mention crafting the meticulously detailed scenery. With every passing year, the layout became more elaborate. After the first 15 years, the track and scenery filled an entire room in the clubs home base in Building 20; the Tech Nickel Plate railroad wove through cities named for faculty advisors, around a lone scenic mountain, and through kilometers of open countryside. The trains were controlled by an ever evolving network of telephone relays, put together from surplus equipment procured by one of the clubs faculty advisors, who had friends in the telephone industry.