Thursday, January 31, 2008

Of Toy Trains & High Tech

When I was a kid, I loved model railroads. I not just to run them, either, but to make a miniature working world, where HO scale commodities would be moved over the rail from point to point and industry to industry, all for the benefit of the 1/87th scale populace. What fascinated me was the control I had over this miniature world. But it never really occurred to me until recently that model railroading is very much a form of robotics.

The comparison is a natural one. While not completely autonomous, there is much similarity to what we expect from robotics; a task performed by remote operation and control. The more sophisticated layouts use electric solenoids to throw the turnouts, and there is even software today that will allow computer operation of your layout.

But bringing a computer into the mix takes the hobby into the present (the first computer controlled model train layouts began to really spread in the 1980's). Look at this hobby in the historical context. A number of companies (notable among them were Lionel and Marklin) made features that added automation such as hopper cars that would dump their loads by pushing a button. Some of these layouts were complicated.

All of the beginnings were there, though. The automatic switching, the movement of bits back and forth, and an interface. No operating system, just direct control of the components. We tend to often look upon model trains as quaint. They were actually a foretaste of what was to come.

The comparison is natural. Let's start off with the interface, in this case the control panel . Here, you had a panel that would control both the train and its route. Normally, you would do a little switching. This would be comparable to loading an application; the miniature rail yard or spur would be data storage. Once all the components were assembled, the train would be run. Not completely automated per se, but certainly remote manipulation.

Compare that to today's robotics hobby and you'll what I mean.
So many other things in common as well; motors, switches, lots and lots of wires.
I'm sure that die hard model train enthusiasts of yesterday would probably feel at home among today's robotics fans. Too bad the robotics fans don't have those spiffy overalls and hats.

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