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The Aero Monorail Company of St. Louis

The Aero Monorail was a futuristic monorail train that first hit the market in 1932. Manufactured in St. Louis by the eponymously named Aero Monorail Company, it was designed to suspend over Lionel standard gauge track and run  faster than the standard gauge train.

The stands came in two varieties: a pair of free standing towers, and a series of towers that slipped under Standard gauge track and used the same 42-inch diameter. The motor looked like an Erector motor and ran on 6-8 volts, either DC or AC.

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Aluminum paint is a cheap alternative to replating

Aficionados of old toys, particularly building kits like Erector and Meccano, or prewar tinplate trains made by companies like Lionel, American Flyer and Marx, know all too well that the tin plating on unpainted parts can wear off with time, and with it, bring unsightly rust.

When restoring a piece, they’ll often use a replating kit to apply a new coat of tin. But sometimes you want a piece to look better but can’t justify the expense of a replating kit, or the piece is too badly pitted to replate well and need an alternative.

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And now it’s Apple’s turn

It’s been a weird month for technology. And as always, Apple had a way to get people to stop talking about anything else, though it’s not the news Apple wanted do deliver this week. I can only think of one bit of news Apple would want to deliver less.

Steve Jobs is stepping down as CEO. He’s becoming chairman, but perception is everything. Especially with Apple. I don’t think any company in recent memory has leveraged perception the way Apple has.

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Where have you gone, A.C. Gilbert?

I bought an Erector set today. I’m not talking the stuff in the stores now. I’m talking a real Erector set, an honest-to-goodness Erector #7 1/2 manufactured in New Haven, Connecticut by A.C. Gilbert. The booklet in the set was dated 1951.A.C. Gilbert was the closest thing the 20th century had to a Renaissance Man. Gilbert paid his way through medical school (at a school you might have heard of–Yale) by working as a magician. He was an accomplished enough athlete to win a gold medal in pole vaulting in the 1908 Olympics. And for whatever reason, he decided not to pursue a career in medicine, instead founding what was one of the largest toy companies in the United States during the early and middle 20th century.

I owned an Erector set growing up, but now that I’ve seen the sets my dad’s generation grew up with, I see they just weren’t the same. The instruction manual started out with a signed letter from Gilbert himself, encouraging kids to learn about how things work, be creative, and have fun doing it.

My Erector set came with a lot of pieces so you could make a lot with it, but this set came with more, and more complex pieces. You could make a car with both my set and this set, but the car with the set I had was driven by pulleys. This set came with enough to make a full-blown gearbox.

It’s frustrating to me that we don’t teach our kids how to make anything anymore. I’ll grant that there’s something to be said for transferring manufacturing and manufacturing know-how to the developing world, but we’re doing it at the expense of knowing how to make anything ourselves. And when we don’t know how to make anything, we can’t really imagine what’s possible either.

Gilbert enjoyed science, and he wanted kids to enjoy it as much as he did. So he invented a series of toys–of which the Erector set was just one–that taught kids that it was possible to make and do fun things with science.

Going to school in the 1980s and 1990s, pretty much all I ever learned math and science was good for was blowing stuff up. I had some teachers I admire to this day (though I had some who weren’t good for much), but somehow they never really got through to me.

I’m not saying that if there’d been a decent, real Erector set on the market when I was a kid that I would have wanted to take physics, and even if I had, I know I wouldn’t have learned much from the physics teacher at my high school, but I definitely would have turned out different. Probably a little bit better. At the very least, Dad and I would have had something to talk about, since he had a degree in physics and would have been able to explain what was going on inside that gearbox.

I have no idea what they teach kids about science in schools now. I know they don’t learn much at home.

Gilbert was a good man in other regards too. When his competitors started unionizing, he didn’t have anything to worry about. He went to his employees and told them he could give them a better deal. Gilbert gave his employees benefits and took care of them, and for the most part they loved him for it.

We don’t have a lot of athletes worth admiring anymore, and we don’t have a lot of businessmen worth admiring either. I can’t think of a single example of someone who was accomplished in both fields.

I think if we had an A.C. Gilbert alive today, we’d be in much better shape as a country.

I bought that Erector set with resale in mind. I got a good deal on it and was pretty confident I’d be able to flip it and make a quick 25 bucks from it. But now I wonder if I should keep it. If I have a son, I’ll want him to have it.

But even if I never have a son, maybe I should keep it purely on principle, to remind me of what we used to be, and the potential we threw away.

Recapturing the charm of someone else’s dad’s American Flyer train

My buddy Todd brought over his dad’s American Flyer train today. It had been a gift from his dad on his first Christmas. It was from 1938.

That was a peculiar year, because it was the first year that A.C. Gilbert, of Erector fame, built American Flyer trains. Previously American Flyer had been an independent company in Chicago.

This model was a Gilbert design, and at most produced from 1938 to 1941.Late last year, Todd had asked our mutual friend Tom about how to go about getting the train repaired. Tom referred Todd to me, since 3-rail O gauge isn’t Tom’s specialty. Of course Tom knew the answer: Marty Glass, of Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton.

So Todd took it to Marty earlier this year, once the Christmas rush had died down. Todd called me yesterday and said Marty had finished it. He brought it over.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but he brought out an intricate 4-6-4 Pacific. It had far more detail than anything Marx ever made, and far more detail than any O27 locomotive Lionel ever made too. It had an intricate set of linkages, which turned out to be its downfall because they got bound up on us once. Marty had run the train for Todd when he picked it up–I suggested Todd have him do that, since 68-year-old trains always need some adjustments after they’ve been repaired. It ran fine on Marty’s layout.

Before we ran the train, I fixed the light in the Pullman car Todd brought over. He hadn’t taken that to Marty. The wire had come loose from the pickup on the underside of the car, and the light bulb was rattling around inside. I fished the bulb out, examined it (it looked fine; the old light bulbs in these trains is almost always fine, even after being shipped across the country), put the bulb in the socket, and re-soldered the wire to the pickup. I solder like a plumber, but judging from the pickup on that train, so did the Gilbert employee who built it.

With the car ready to go, I put it and the locomotive and tender on the track. We quickly found that the oddball American Flyer link and pin couplers didn’t line up right. Time for some more adjustments. I finally got the coupler heights adjusted correctly, then I hit the power, expecting since it had run in the store, it would run just fine on my layout.

Not so much. It ran for a few feet, then stopped in a shower of blue sparks, leaving a buzzing sound on the layout that I’ve come to associate with a short circuit.

The handrails were the biggest problem. There are two holes in the cowcatcher assembly that the handrails are supposed to slide into. Had I been doing the design, I would have made the rails longer, so they could be bent further underneath. But that’s irrelevant now. With the handrails not in the holes, they were pushing the cowcatcher down low, there it could short out the third rail. S gaugers can gloat that this wouldn’t be a problem on 2-rail S gauge track, but they really ought to respect their elders.

So I fixed the rails, and put a dab of solder on the underside to hold them in place (solder won’t stick to the zamac boiler). I noted the Phillips head screws Marty used to put it all back together. I’ll have to give him a hard time about that the next time I see him. Phillips screws didn’t come into widespread use on toys until the ’50s.

With that problem taken care of, it ran, but then it locked up hard. I gave it another thorough examination, and found that some of the intricacies on the drive rods had come misaligned, causing it all to bind up. I had to take it apart to free up enough space to realign everything. I took off the front truck, then the cowcatcher, guided everything where it was supposed to go, and reassembled everything.

And what do you know… It ran. It was a bit herky-jerky at first, but in my experience, old motors are always that way when they’ve been sitting for decades. They seem to need to get some running time in before they get used to running smoothly again. Todd told me that Marty said the motor was fine; the only problems he found were structural. From the sound of the motor, Marty obviously had lubed it–they tend to squeal a lot after 50 years, let alone 68, and this motor sounded like new–but I guess that’s all it had needed.

I found out the hard way that this locomotive (an American Flyer 531) really hates O27 curves. It derails every time, even on curves where you lead into the O27 and back out with a wider curve. So we moved it from my inner loop to my outer loop, which is mostly O42 except in one corner, where I had to do O34 to make everything fit. It made me nervous on O34 curves, but it did manage to stay on the track. It was much happier on the O42, which makes sense, because American Flyer O gauge track was 40 inches in diameter, just like its S gauge track.

Once we were confident it was running, we packed it back up. Todd was going to go surprise his dad with it. It’s been a long time since its last run. I hope he’ll enjoy seeing it roam the rails again.

Now that I’ve seen some of the late prewar 3/16 scale American Flyer up close and personal, I have a new admiration for it. I own a number of the Flyer freight cars from that period, but none of the locomotives. The detail is very good, and they run smooth and are geared low, so they have plenty of pulling power.

I’m sure Todd’s dad will be happy to see it running again. I know I sure enjoyed fine-tuning it.

Excuse me while I go check eBay…

Lionel bankruptcy

It was all over the news when it happened. Lionel, the train maker, filed Chapter 11 on Nov 16, 2004. But a lot of the news stories got some critical details wrong. It’s not the first time a Lionel bankruptcy confused people.

Lionel has been bankrupt before, but the company has changed ownership numerous times so it’s not the same legal entity that went bankrupt in the 1930s and 1960s. There have also been numerous rumors about bankruptcy after 2004. These are usually dealers trying to create artificial demand to clear inventory.

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