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LEDs for American Flyer, Lionel, and Marx trains

A frequent, sometimes heated topic of debate is upgrading to LED lighting in the headlight of vintage American Flyer, Lionel, or Marx trains. It shows how sometimes a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. You have several options for LEDs in old electric trains, and not all of them are expensive or difficult.

Specialty retailers like Town and Country Hobbies sell screw-in replacement LED bulbs with an E10 base for vintage trains. It’s also possible to wire up your own circuit. You can also take your chances on cheap 12V E10 LED bulbs from Ebay.

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All about the Lionel KW

The Lionel KW is the second most powerful, and second most popular Lionel transformer of the 1950s and 1960s. If the Lionel ZW was Lionel’s Cadillac, the KW was Lionel’s Buick. It was a 190-watt transformer and Lionel sold it from 1950 to 1965. It replaced Lionel’s 150-watt ZW lookalike, the VW.

Finding original KW instructions or an original KW manual online is a bit difficult, but there’s plenty the original instructions don’t mention.

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All about the Lionel ZW

The Lionel ZW is Lionel’s most iconic transformer of the 1950s and 1960s, and perhaps one of its most iconic products, period. Everyone wanted the two-handled, football-shaped, 275-watt powerhouse that was the ZW. It was one of Lionel’s more venerable postwar products, lasting on the market for 18 years from 1948 to 1966. It replaced Lionel’s former top-of-the-line transformer, the Z.

Finding original ZW instructions or an original ZW manual online is a bit difficult, but there’s plenty the original instructions don’t mention.

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Lionel KW diode installation

Lionel transformers use a selenium rectifier disc to produce a jolt of DC voltage to activate their train whistle. These discs degrade over time, so a decades-old transformer often produces a pretty anemic whistle–even one of the bigger transformers like the 190-watt Lionel KW. Replace the disc with a diode for a cost effective and reliable fix for that wimpy whistle. Here’s a step by step guide to a Lionel KW diode upgrade.

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Fare thee well, Radio Shack. Hello, Battery Shack!

The new owners of what’s left of Radio Shack want to specialize in batteries. Although this isn’t a guaranteed survival plan, it makes sense to me.

Last week, I went to one of the few remaining Radio Shack locations to get some overpriced diodes and D-sub connectors for a project. My oldest son tagged along. He asked about the store. I tried to describe it, and finally I said, “It’s kind of like Batteries Plus would be if it sold electronic parts too. And phones.”

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How to wire LEDs and other circuits risk-free

I see a lot of questions about how to wire up circuits, and unfortunately when people ask these questions on train forums, those innocent questions often devolve into heated and unproductive discussions focused on the math and physics involved, or other creative things that overcomplicate the project, and it scares off a number of people, often including the person who asked the question.

Usually what the person asking the question really wants is to not spend a whole Saturday soldering a circuit together, only to find out in the end that it doesn’t work.

So I’ll attack that issue. Here’s how to stage a circuit, find out in a matter of minutes whether it will work, and delay the soldering until you have something promising.
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Mac emulation and insights

I’m scaring myself. I’ve been playing around with Mac emulation on my PC at home (I can get an old Quadra or something from work for nothing or virtually nothing, but finding space to set it up properly in these cramped quarters would be an issue, especially since I’d have to give it its own keyboard and mouse and possibly its own monitor). My Celeron-400 certainly feels faster than the last 68040 I used, and I greatly prefer my clackety IBM keyboard and my Logitech mouse over anything Apple ever made, so this emulation setup isn’t bad. I’ve got MacOS 8.0 running on my Celeron 400, though on an 040 (especially an emulated 040), 7.6.1 would be much better if I can track down an installation CD for it by some chance.
Of course, there’s the issue of software. A lot of the ancient 68K Mac software is freely available (legally) these days, and it raises the old “Are we better off now than we were 10 years ago?” question. I don’t know. I still think the software of yesterday was much leaner and meaner and less buggy. By the same token, programs didn’t necessarily work together like they do today, and the bundles of today were virtually unheard of. Software ran anywhere from $99 to $999, and it typically did one thing. More, an outliner from Symantec (not to be confused with the Unix paging utility), made charts and outlines. That was it. And it cost around $100. The functionality that’s in MS Office today would have cost many thousands of dollars in 1990. Of course, the very same argument could be made for hardware. You couldn’t get the functionality available in a $399 eMachine for any price in 1990–there were very high-end machines in 1990 with that kind of CPU power, of course, but the applications weren’t there because you don’t buy a supercomputer to run word processing.

Messing around with this old Mac software gave me some insights into the machine. One of the freely available packages is Think Pascal. In high school, we did computer applications on Macs and programming (at least the advanced programming classes I was taking) on IBM PCs. So I know Pascal, but this was my first exposure to it on the Mac. Reading some of the preliminary documentation on programming a Mac in Think Pascal gave me some insight into why the Mac has (and always had) such a rabid following. I don’t really find the Mac any easier to use than Windows (and there are some things I have to do that are far easier in Windows) but I won’t deny the Mac is a whole lot easier to program. Implementing “Hello, World!” in Think Pascal on a Mac is much easier than implementing it in C on Windows, and the Think Pascal version of “Hello, World!” makes more sense to me than even the Visual Basic version of “Hello, World!” on Windows. It’s more complicated than the main() { printf(“Hello, World!\n”); } you would use in DOS or Unix, but if you use all available tools and put the dialog boxes and buttons in resources it’s not much more complex, and programmers can rough in GUI elements and get on with the code while they shove the GUI elements off to artsy people, then it’s easy to use ResEdit or another resource editor to put the final GUI elements in.

And, bite my tongue, it would appear that programming the Mac was easier than programming the Amiga as well. I wrote plenty of command-line tools for the Amiga but I never mastered the GUI on that platform either.

I’m not saying anyone can program a Mac, but having attempted unsuccessfully to learn how to program effectively in Windows, I can say people who wouldn’t program in Windows can (and probably do, or at least did back in the day) program the Mac. My friends Tom Gatermann, Tim Coleman and I stand no chance whatsoever of being able to develop a decent Windows app, but we would have made a decent Mac development team with Tom and Tim handling the GUI and me writing code and all of us contributing ideas.

The next time I need a computer to do something for me that I can’t find a readily made program to do, I’m apt to load up Think Pascal on a Mac emulator and take a crack at it myself. My simple mind can handle programming that platform, and I suspect some of the innovative programs that appeared on the Mac first may have originally been written by people like me who have ideas but don’t think like a traditional programmer.


From: Robert Bruce Thompson

“I can count on one hand the number of people I know who’ve ever built anything from discrete components, myself included…”

You’re hanging out with way too young a crowd. I’m only 47, and I used to build stuff from discrete components, including ham transmitters, receivers, amplifiers, and so on using *tubes*. You probably wouldn’t recognize a tube if it bit you, so I’ll explain that they were glass things kind of like light-bulbs. They were available in hundreds of types, which one used for various purposes–diodes, triodes, and so on. When they were running, they lit up with an orange light. Very pretty. And they did burn out frequently, just like light bulbs.

And I’ll be that if I were pressed hard enough, I could even remember the resistor color codes.



Too young and too lazy. But I do know what tubes are–they’re still used in audio equipment, for one, because they give a richer tone than transistors. And I remember when I was really young, there was a drugstore we used to go to that still had a tube tester in back.

But I remember the eyebrows I raised in high school when I was building something that needed a particular logical gate, and I couldn’t quickly locate the appropriate chip. I had a book that told how to build the gate using discrete components, so I did it. Actually I raised eyebrows twice–once for building the thing that required the chip in the first place, and once for making the chip stand-in.