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Automated Switching Layout, circa 1941 by the Miller brothers, reformatted from a 'Papa' Ted's Place page. Visit Big Indoor Trains™ primer pageOn30 Display Trains
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Written by "Papa" Ted Althof and Paul D. Race for Big Indoor Trains™ and Big Christmas Trains™



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Note from Editor: "Papa" Ted Althof, who loved all things Christmas and created the internet's largest and most authoritative site about cardboard Christmas "putz" houses, also dabbled in O gauge trains. So when a reader sent him a series of photographs of a complex Christmas railroad, circa 1941, he couldn't help trying to figure out the track plan. Eventually he learned that the young men who set this up actually set up a number of store-window displays over the years, using the kind of crazy logic that they used to create this setup.

Like me, Ted was no math genius, so as he worked his way through the puzzle that the track plan represented, he kept going back and rethinking parameters and possiblities that a more mathematically-oriented person would probably see from the start. I could nearly fill a notebook on the notes he sent me as he was going through it all. The text below represent his last attempt to sort it out, without all the false leads he followed during his research.

Ted also had most or all of the Lionel hardware he needed to try the whole thing out for himself on the living room floor. But he never had time to try it in the "real world." Nevertheless, he had a lot of fun trying to work it all out on paper. He published his last, best guesses on the "2005 Putz" page of his "Papa Ted's Place" web site. The article below collects those guesses and the photos that inspired them onto one page. To see Ted's original scans of the photos, which are about half again as big, just click on the photos below.

For my part, I mostly enjoy seeing the photographs of the original railroad. And it's a nice reminder of the inquisitive mind that we, sadly, lost in 2012.

If you want to try this railroad plan yourself, or if you just like looking at the photos, I'm sure you'll enjoy taking a look. From here on out, the text is in Ted's own words, except for minor corrections. - Paul


1941 Automated Switching Layout

Donna sent me these precious black and white prints - tiny little scallope-edged things from 1941 - that she says were taken by relatives of hers in Scranton, PA. While it's an enormous hassle to deal with paper prints, you know how I LOVE old photos and these were exceptional ( from the year of my birth ) - and so I wheedled my savy good friend, Mike,who knows how - into bringing these to size and life.

Lionel Railroad circa 1941 with intricate switching configuration.  Click for bigger photo. Lionel Railroad circa 1941 with intricate switching configuration.  Click for bigger photo.

These shots seem to be about the center of the scene, stepping deeper - showing a liberal use of the gypsum/plaster "COMPO" houses on a prewar train layout and lots of fanciful figures, pathways - all kinds of little "microcosmic" inner scenes, each with story a kid could tell you about...for HOURS!"

Lionel Railroad circa 1941 with intricate switching configuration.  Click for bigger photo. Closer on the inner steets from another angle ...Lots of "activity." More stories. A lionel #184 Bungalo on the right and a Lionel #191 Villa behind the plaster "Store." I wonder what these little figures are. They're half the height of the Barclays I remember, and the Lionel Train Figures were bigger, too.

Here's the "mountain" tunnel with farmstead atop. It's made of brown paper grocery store bags all crumped up and accented with paint - the same way an American Flyer collector friend of mine still makes his mountains to this day. Lionel Railroad circa 1941 with intricate switching configuration.  Click for bigger photo.

Lionel Railroad circa 1941 with intricate switching configuration.  Click for bigger photo. Here's a down-front lower-left closeup on the Lionel #137 Station with liberal use of Lionel and Barclay figures.

The Puzzle and the Plan

Having seen only about 3/4's of the track layout, as an old train guy I was still able to extrapolate one of the most ingenious, self-running track plans I have ever seen from these old snapshots. I never seen anything like it in any of the old Lionel catalogs and publications of "suggested track plans" anywhere. The old "High-Rail" 0-31 track and type 0-22 switches, with their "non-derailing" feature,which when connected by wires to other switches - actually form logic cells comparable to those in modern computers. The train would have taken three different routes over the layout before repeating - with no human intervention. And it will work in either direction. Amazing!

If you like maze-puzzles - get your pencil and trace this out....

This is a 'cleaned-up' version of Ted's original drawing.  Click for a bigger picture.

Postulate two paired sets of switches. Each pair operates together to set and reset each other always to the same position at the same time. "A" with "B" and "C" with "D". The two pairs are independent of each other.

Running Clockwise

The train coming through 45 deg. crossing X1 toward Switch A triggers Switch A to the curved position ("1"). Switch A is wired to Switch B so that Switch B simultaneously switches to the "1" position (curved.)

When the train comes out of the tunnel and reaches Switch B, it turns down the central track toward Switch C.

When it reaches Switch C, the switch is thrown to the 3 position (straight). Switch C is wired to Switch D. which simultaneously throws to the "3" position ( straight.)

Meantime, the train is passing over Switch C, over X1 and down around the left lower front toward Switch A and the tunnel again.

Reaching Switch A the switch throws to the "2" position (straight" and throws Switch B to position "2" (straight also.)

So the train goes through the tunnel and comes to Switch B again, but this time goes straight and into Switch D, which was previously set to the "3" (straight) position by Switch C and continues straight at Switch D.

It rounds the outer curve and passes back into the interior over 90 deg crossing X2. It reaches Switch C again, and it throws it to "4" (curved) position and simultaneously throws Switch D to the "#4" position (curved.)

The train comes down over X1 again, and down around the front track to Switch A again.

Already set to "2" (straight), Switch A sends the train into the tunnel, and no change is made at Switch B.

It goes straight through at "B," and into Switch D again, which was previously to the "4" position by Switch C.

Now it turns at "D" and goes down through X2 into the lower curve, and left into our ORIGINAL STARTING POINT! - crossing X1 heading toward Switch A and the tunnel. ... and the whole thing starts over!

3 different routes over 1 track plan with no human intervention! (Except train wrecks which you will always have when you use switches.)

Running Counterclockwise

Picture the train - running counter-clockwise into Switch A. If Switch A is set straight, the train will continue down and around front and up thru through X1 and into switch C. If C is Straight it will proceed into Switch B.

Switch B will act as master and set Switch A to turn. The train now turns at Switch A and goes thru the other leg of X1 and up into X2 and into Switch D.

Switch D acts as master and sets switch C to turn. The train goes on through switch B which sets switch A to straight.

The train goes through Switch A straight, comes down around again and through X1 into Switch C - but this time Switch C has been set to turn out so that the train now passes through the other leg of X2 and out around the coal elevator and into Switch D again.

Switch D now sets Switch C to straight again. The train goes on thru Switch B straight. Switch A is already straight and does not get reset.

We are back at the beginning cycle again, and all track has been run.

Unanswered Questions

Without a doubt, this is the most amazing logical monkey-puzzle track plan I've ever seen. Two cooperative wired switch pairs make for three diferent routes.... either direction. Theoretically, if another pair of switches could be worked in - you could multiply that number before repeating, but so far I can't even visualize a third pair. It's like the Fifth Dimension. I'm on my way to the ibuprofen bottle as it is ....

Lionel Railroad circa 1941 with intricate switching configuration.  Click for bigger photo. I had not received this last picture at the time I formulated the above drawing. It came later, showing the "northeast" corner of the layout, so I was "educated-guessing" about the "Switch D" - "X2" configuration. There exists no snapshot view of the "southeast" corner. But from the what I could see, what I have filled in would be logical. I was right about Switch "D", but I used a 90 deg. crossover where they had a switch below the coal elevator. Actually, this makes my automatic theory of the layout work.

I'm not totally sure, now, that the "Miller Boys" actually had theirs working this way. Without that missing view, we'll never know for sure, but they certainly did manage to reach down over 60 years and spark another mind!

Those Miller boys of Scranton really knew their stuff! Donna says they did displays and even store windows all over Scranton before the war. The name of one of the boys was Clarence Miller who later married "Ruth." Donna never saw these pictures until she inherited them after the Scranton Flood,but says she does remember they had a big living room.(And obviously tolerant parents!)

I will be having more pictures of another layout that they did in website this soon. And thank you, Clarence and Ruth Miller and Donna!

Paul here: Ted included the later photos on this page.

Keep in Touch

We welcome your questions as indicators of what we should be working on next (also, we always try to answer reader questions quickly). In addition, if you have any photos, tips, or articles you'd like to share with your fellow hobbyists, please let us know. All of the hobbies we report on grow best when we all learn together.

In the meantime, please accept our very best wishes for a great autumn and holiday season!

Paul Race

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