The sneak peek for the January, 2014 Railroad Model Craftsman notes that the issue includes a feature on Dawson Station by Kenneth Olsen. As the photo above shows, this is a very nicely done layout that’s based on a prototype sawmill in the northwestern United States.
What’s not obvious from the above photo is it’s a micro-layout – just one foot by four feet in N scale. While there are many fine examples of micro layouts online, what I find really interesting about this blog in particular is how Kenneth has exhibited Dawson Station at a number of non-model railroading events in Oregon over the past year. Here are three reports he’s posted:
* the Portland Maker Faire in September
* the Eugene Maker Maker Faire in June, and
* the Eugene Maker’s Festival in March.
Maker Faires are getting a lot of attention in the mainstream press lately:
To cite one example, this Toronto Star article from September reports on a Mini Maker Faire in the city where I live. Note that the reporter seems quite taken by the typewriter that prints out Twitter messages.
To cite another, here’s a report about a Maker Faire that Kenneth attended with Dawson Station. Note the age of the attendees shown in the photos. (And here’s Kenneth’s write-up where I found the link to the Gazette-Times.)
The theme that runs through many of these articles is that these Maker Faires represent a return to doing things and learning craftsmanship skills such as soldering, metal working, wiring and so on. Of course, for model railway enthusiasts there’s no “return” involved, because for us such skills never went away. They’re part of what we do – mastering these skills and many others is essential to making the trains run. And for many – including myself – it’s an important reason why we do this hobby.
But when outsiders look at the model railroading hobby, they often see it differently. They see a bunch of people – mostly men, mostly caucasian, and increasingly old – playing with toys. And yet, there’s not much different between building a small layout and building a tweeting typewriter: both projects require learning a variety of skills and both are undertaken for fun.
That’s why I think what Kenneth is doing is so awesome:
* He’s started with the best aspects of the model railroading hobby – including prototype research and the many craftsman skills that we learn when we build a layout.
* Then he’s added a very modern dose of computing coolness, using Arduino open-source hardware and software to perform various tasks on the layout including occupancy detection, locomotive control, and switch control. Incorporating Arduino into the layout makes the model railroading hobby relevant to the bright young people who are using the system to build robots and other Maker Faire staples.
* And finally, Kenneth is taking his layout to the types of events that attract people who are interested in these types of skills. Those are people who could become life-long model railway enthusiasts – providing the hobby is shown to be relevant to them in some way.
Relevancy is important. I’m not sure exactly how to do that, but it could include the choice of theme. Modern railroading is an obvious choice since it’s likely the only kind of railroading with which non-hobbyists will be familiar. But it’s not the only possibility. I think there’s an opportunity to draw people into the hobby through fantasy themes such as Steam Punk. (There is an active community of Steam Punk model railway enthusiasts. Here’s an example. I particularly like The Tortoise…)
Another thought is to incorporate ways for spectators to interact with the layout through their own personal electronics and social media. This could be anything from harnessing Twitter to display messages on a billboard all the way up to using Wi-Fi and an app like WiThrottle to control the trains.
I’ve only just started to read Kenneth’s blog and have not yet seen the RMC article, so I don’t know if he set out to build a layout to which the Maker Movement could relate, or whether its role in promoting the hobby to the Makers has evolved. And while Kenneth’s layout is the first example I’ve seen of this, I’m sure others have taken their exhibition layouts or model railway projects to Maker Faires. (If you have, use the “comments” function on this post to let me know about the experience.)
Regardless, I think it’s a great idea. For such a small layout, Dawson Station certainly gives me some big ideas…
Well done, Kenneth!