Victorian carpet train

The Birmingham Dribbler was one of the earliest model train toys. Powered by steam, it leaked water everywhere and caused fires when it fell over.

Zürcher Spielzeugmuseum, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For some reason, trains capture the imagination like few other technologies. Model railways, miniature railways, and trainspotting all gather extensive communities of enthusiasts who are willing to spend countless hours on their very specific hobby. This inevitably draws some derision from outsiders… but it really shouldn’t. I respect the passionate, even if I don’t share that same passion; sincere enthusiasm makes the world more interesting.

(I am not a railfan myself, but one of my ancestors was an engineer for a Fell locomotive on the Rimutaka Line so I guess that puts me at least train-history-adjacent.)

Where did it all begin, though? Miniature railways date back as far as the mid-19th century; one early example was made for the son of Napoleon III. One early trainspotter – Fanny Gordon – was making notes about passing trains in 1861. And some time around the 1850s, one of the first working model trains came out of Birmingham, England.

The Birmingham Dribbler was a live steam train. Put water in the brass boiler, fill the tray underneath it with methylated spirits (aka wood spirit, aka denatured alcohol), set the spirits on fire, and watch it go. The heat from the burning spirits boiled the water; the resulting steam powered the two pistons attached to the wheels:

This train had no tracks; it was designed to run on carpet or other flooring. It leaked a lot, hence the name. (And hence also its alternative description, the piddler.) The train had no steering mechanism, so if it hit something and fell over… well, it would spread burning methanol all over the floor.

What is it with Victorian kids and fire?

Birmingham Dribblers were sold right up until the 1920s at least, and you can still buy replicas today.

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