Skip to content
Home » Toy trains » How does a Lionel e-unit work?

How does a Lionel e-unit work?

The Lionel e-unit was a wonder of ingenuity in the 1930s. But how does a Lionel e-unit work?

Open-frame electric motors like the ones Lionel used in its glory days have two major parts: a field and an armature. Both of them are electromagnets. The field stays stationary, while the armature turns. The armature turns because its polarity constantly changes.

The field’s polarity depends solely on wiring. Reverse the wires on the field, and the motor runs the other direction. It’s simple.

Changing the polarity remotely isn’t quite so simple.

How a Lionel e-unit works

how does a Lionel e-unit work? This image shows how.

This old schematic explains how the e-unit works. The contacts on the drum in the center change the polarity of the motor field on the left when the drum turns.

The Lionel e-unit changes the polarity of the field each time you sequence the power. It consists of a solenoid, a series of copper fingers, and a drum with a ratchet and a series of contacts on it.

When you interrupt the power, the solenoid sequences the drum via the ratchet. The contacts on the drum engage the copper fingers, which changes which wire goes where. This changes the field’s polarity, or disengages it entirely to put the locomotive in neutral.

It’s an extremely clever design. When you think about it, the design makes a lot of sense, but it took decades for someone to think of it. Lionel’s rival Ives invented it in 1924, and Lionel couldn’t come up with something better. The story of Lionel’s buyout of Ives is complicated, but Lionel bought Ives to get that e-unit. Lionel found a way to make the Ives design smaller, but needed the Ives patents to make it legal. How Lionel protected the Ives trademark is another story. Ives was a good company and a story of its president’s generosity is legendary.

Arcing can cause the e-unit to malfunction. It causes the copper fingers to get dirty. This hurts conductivity and causes heat. Eventually the heat can distort the fingers or the drum, eventually causing enough damage that the e-unit won’t function and the train won’t run.

Generally this process takes years or even decades, so this wasn’t a big problem for Lionel. American Flyer’s counterpart component was crankier. Marx’s counterpart component was far more reliable but lacked a neutral position. So the e-unit really gave Lionel a competitive advantage for several decades.

If you need help rewiring an e-unit, here’s a diagram and writeup. If you want to bypass an e-unit, here’s how.

If you found this post informative or helpful, please share it!

3 thoughts on “How does a Lionel e-unit work?”

  1. I have a two position “e” unit on a 1055 Texas special Alco engine. The motor will only run in reverse (or forward) if you reverse the position of the two brush wires. HELP. Got to be in the wiring because the motor works well. The motor stays still when you switch the transformer power./ What am I doing wrong??
    ed staley

    1. Sounds like the two-position e-unit has worn or dirty contacts in it. I’ve never rebuilt a 2-positon Lionel e-unit but you can try cleaning it out with contact cleaner to see if that makes it work. That’ll take care of dirty contacts, though worn contacts will require a rebuild or replace. Used 2-position Lionel e-units cost $15-$20 so at least they aren’t a major expense.

  2. Then real beauty of the e-unit is in the drum and fingers arrangement. The pawl and gear step through 8 positions but only 3 possible sets of connections. The key is where the fingers make the connections and how the insulation material is painted on the drum.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: