Thomas Trains: How A Broomstick Became A Worldwide Obsession

Thomas Trains: How A Broomstick Became A Worldwide Obsession

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Alison Gerber
Aug 28, 2015
(Image credit: NPR)

"Choo-choo!" If you are a parent of a pre-school kid, chances are you've whiled away many hours of your life playing trains. Thomas trains, to be exact. But have you ever held that little wooden train and wondered where he came from? How much do you know about Sir Topham Hatt's "most useful engine"? Here's a brief design history of how Thomas grew from a father's gift into a toy beloved the world over.

(Image credit: Amazon)

The very first wooden Thomas was created 50 years before he was available to buy in stores. He was made by Anglican minister Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry from a piece of broomstick as a Christmas present for his son, Christopher. That was in 1942! You can see the original Thomas on the left side of the cover of this book on Awdry's life, The Thomas The Tank Engine Man.

Three years later, Awdry's first book, The Three Railway Engines, was released. Awdry had sketched rough drafts of how the trains were to appear, but he was disappointed with the direction taken by his first illustrator, William Middleton- the faces were too flat. The appearance of Thomas as we know him was born of the illustrations by Reginald Payne (at top of post) in the second book in the series, Thomas the Tank Engine, published in 1946.

(Image credit: Youtube)

In 1992, Learning Curve became the first company to produce the Thomas Wooden Railway sets for sale. The original trains were simple—clearly just a few pieces of wood stuck together—with simple expressions, little detail, and few plastic components (only the face and wheels). The tracks Thomas rode on were also simple: no details, just plain wood.

(Image credit: Ada, Jane and Mabel Wiki)

Over the next 5 years, some of the Thomas Wooden Railway line's most collectible items were released. The Troublesome Brakevan is perhaps the most rare Wooden Thomas item of all- Brakevans sell on eBay for anywhere between $85 and $150. Other collectibles include the old-style Sir Topham Hatt's car, the sad face Henry (1998), and the three lovely ladies pictured above: the open carriages Ada, Jane, and Mabel.

What happened next is interesting. The shapes of the Thomas trains were slowly influenced less by the books' imagery, and more by that of the television show. In 2002, all of the toy trains' faces underwent a redesign to bring them closer to their appearance in the show. This happened again in 2011 (yearbook pictured above) because in that year the Thomas the Tank Engine show began to be produced using CGI.

(Image credit: Amazon)

In 2012, RC2, the parent company of Learning Curve, was purchased by TOMY, and the company was absorbed into the TOMY brand. In 2013, Fisher Price acquired the range, and they continue to produce the sets today. Thomas' sets are more involved than they ever have been, complete with falling snow, porters who move at the push of a button, and fully-stocked repair sheds. Unfortunately, to accommodate this increased complexity, the toys also incorporate more plastic than they ever have before. Take a look at the Pirate's Cove set above- it's hard to imagine it all came from a humble broomstick, right?

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