Model railway is undoubtedly one of the most traditional and recognizable methods of scale-model building. The craft has a rich history that dates all the way back to the 19th century, beginning with carpet railways and toy trains. In 1891, model manufacturer Märklin introduced the first standardized track system, which sparked the beginning of the scale railway industry that we know and love today. In the early 20th century, we saw an increased interest in electric trains, which gave the craft its modern and realistic flair. However until the late 1920’s, toy trains were only affordable to specific individuals who had access to certain wealth. More recently, railway models are now mass produced or manufactured by brands such as Hornby, which makes the hobby more accessible for everyone!

Throughout the history of railway modeling, there have been some revolutionary railway builders that have not only elevated the craft but have been an inspiration to today's generation of scale modelers. In this blog, we reflect on three legendary model railway builders who have shaped the beloved hobby.


  1. Introduction to Model Railway
  2. The Pioneer of Model Railway: Frank Hornby
  3. The Railway Storyteller: John Allen
  4. The Master of Innovation: John Ahern
  5. Did You Know?
  6. Summary

Let’s start with the pioneer. Frank Hornby.

Image: The genius who created Meccano, Frank Hornby

How could we possibly revisit the history of model railway without talking about the English entrepreneur himself, Frank Hornby. Hornby was born in 1863 and later died in 1936 at the age of 73. In 1901, he invented Meccano and first introduced the brand to the market. The development of Meccano was revolutionary to the construction of model railway systems and literally brought model trains to life through the invention of moving gears and parts. Hornby's inventions and ideas from his Meccano brand and railway models made him a millionaire by the year 1930 before pursuing a short term career in politics before his death. Even decades later, Hornby’s visionary approach has left an enduring impact on the hobby and continues to be a well-known name in hobby stores and households.

Image: Box art for Hornby Dublo train

Next we have John Whitby Allen, a master storyteller who is remembered for his exceptional attention to detail. Allen was an American model railway builder who was born in 1913 shortly before the war. He was an expert at scratch building and creating scenery, with the ability to give his models a more realistic appearance through the use of innovative weathering techniques.

Allen’s interest in model railway started not long before the end of World War II, but due to the limited supply of kits and hobby materials, he began building models from scratch. After studying and observing various railroads and creating prototypes, Allen began taking photographs of his work and was published in “Model Railroader” magazine in July 1946. His dedication and commitment to creativity has continued to captivate the model railway community even after his death in 1973.

Image: John Whitby Allen at work on his model railway track

Over the decades, Europe has seen some legendary railway builders, including John H. Ahern. Ahern was born in 1903 and is known as “an innovative craftsman” in the railway modeling community. He pushed the boundaries of realism, and was known for his remarkable attention to detail, his ability to incorporate beautiful weathering technique, realistic design and intricate structure to his modeling. Ahern was also a photographer and author, known for publishing several books related to his interest in miniature construction and the locomotive industry. Ahern was published in several magazines, and you can still find the legendary “Madder Valley” railway model on display at the Pendon Railway Museum in Oxfordshire.

Image: John Ahern’s “Madder Valley” railway model, Much Madder station.

Did You Know?

  • John H. Ahern’s favorite modeling material was his own recipe. A mixture made from Alabastine and sawdust, which created a clay-like material that was perfect for sculpting and dying.
  • The National Museum in York, UK is home to the World’s largest collection of model railway vehicles made by a single person, James P. Richard.
  • The most expensive model train was sold in the US for $250,000 in 2006.

In summary, today's model railway community owes a debt of gratitude to this group of innovative and creative modelers. They have left a massive impact on the hobby, including a great list of inventions and techniques.

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