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1865: Fraternity with a Theme

The Tech Model Railroad became a home away from home for students.
October 1, 2004

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.

The room in Building 20 became a second home to club members. It was a 24-hour-a-day operation, says Andrew Miller 67, who remains active in the club. Inevitably, the club members developed a strange and unique culture. A quirky newsletter and extensive invented vocabulary (one member even wrote an official dictionary of their jargon) made them less of a club and more of a fraternitywith a theme, says Miller.

Though united in their dedication, club members fell into two distinct categories: those with an intrinsic love of railroads and modeling, affectionately called the knife and paintbrush contingent, and those fascinated by the control system, the signals and power, or S&P, people. The S&P people were obsessed with the way the system worked and its increasing complexities. When the first computers arrived on campus in the late 1950s, the S&P people were immediately drawn to the adventure of programming, and not only for its uses in controlling model trains. They began using a primitive computer language to program calculators, electronic music, and the first known video game. Steven Levy, in his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, credits several club members with originating the culture of computer hacking.

Although computers added new dimensions to railroad control, they were a divisive force within the club. Malcolm Laughlin 59, SM 61, says computers actually diverted the interests of many model railroaders. Miller recalls that by the late 1960s and 70s, we started acquiring members who would spend their whole life working on computers under the bench, and then sometime before they graduated theyd stand up, look around, and say, What are all these trains doing here?

Club membership dwindled in the 1980s and 90s as computers, video games, and an increasingly coed campus vied for the interest of new students. And then in 1997, the imminent demise of Building 20 forced the club to dismantle its 50-year-old layout and start from scratch in Building N52. Though heartbreaking, the move provided an opportunity to build, de novo, an updated control system. Members built new cities in the spirit of the old, keeping city names, several important buildings, and plenty of inside jokes intact.

The Tech Model Railroad Club is no longer a 24-hour-a-day operation, nor is it the bastion of computer-programming genius it once was; but it still holds the interest and devotion of about a dozen students and returning alumni. Laughlin, looking with satisfaction at a particularly complicated segment of the track, says, Designing this layout, building this switch from hand and sightthats what its all about. At an institution where students spend so much time sitting in front of computer screens, model railroading remains for some the ultimate hands-on hobby.

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