Coffee Table #1

Construction of Coffee Table #1 began during the summer of 1957, and the table was completed the day before it was scheduled to be displayed at a hobby show in April 1958. The trains are modified Marklin HO, running on custom built track. The layout was really state-of-the-art for its day. Of course, “state-of-the-art” in the 1950s meant relays, stepping switches, and plugboards. The train table still runs, more than 55 years after its construction.

Coffee Table #1

The earliest surviving photo of the train table (below) shows the center section of the table while it was under construction in my bedroom at Webster House at the Fessenden School. The track had been laid, and the buildings had been set in place, but none of the scenery had been completed, and the computer had not been attached.

Coffee Table #1 being constructed

The first version of the computer was constructed from used pinball machine parts. (The price was right.) The photo below shows an assortment of relays and the stepping switch from the pinball machine.

The programmable plugboard for the first version of the computer was handmade, as were the plugwires. In the photo, below, I am shown working on the plugboard assembly with a soldering iron that seems better suited for automotive body work.

By 1959, I had managed to acquire a large number of IBM wire-contact relays, several IBM plugboards, hundreds of IBM plugwires, and a high-quality 30-position stepping switch. I immediately redesigned and rebuilt the computer using the much-more-reliable parts. In the rare vintage photo below, I can be seen rewiring the layout. The new control panel appears in the background, while the underside of the plugboard assembly is shown attached to the layout at the top left side of the photo.

Shown below is the underside of the train table after reconstruction was complete.

During the 1960s, Coffee Table #1 made many public appearances, where it was always well received. Train enthusiasts of all ages enjoyed watching the fully automated model railroad. The built-in state-of-the-art programmable computer would control the turnouts, scenery lights, cause the train to reverse direction or stop at the station, and even operate the emergency flashing light on a police car.

Although most viewers were happy to watch and not touch, there were some who just couldn't keep their paws off the moving train.

Tammy inspecting the train

Tammy isn't the only furry friend who likes to play with trains. The photo below shows a different layout (also in a piece of furniture) and two other curious cats doing what cats like to do with things that move.

Squeeky and Snaps

Coffee Table #1 was definitely ahead of its time. In 1966, I submitted a description of the layout to Kalmbach Publishing Co., hoping that they would be interested in running an article about the table in Model Railroader magazine. Their response was that they were not interested, because the majority of their readers preferred to operate their railroads manually, rather than by computer control.

Coffee Table #2

A second HO-scale computerized train table was started in 1960. A mahogany table was built to hold the trains, and much of the planned control hardware was installed; however, the project eventually derailed. The decision was made to wait until a more-sophisticated layout could be built using smaller trains and a more powerful computer.

And there was another problem. The person who was doing most of the work assembling the train table was no longer available. He had been shot dead by the police when he tried to rob a bank. No kidding!

Only a few photos remain of Coffee Table #2, and the design documentation has long since disappeared. The earliest photo, showing the table framework and the track base is shown below.

Another early photo shows the wiring harness under construction.

The only other photos (below) show the bottom of the table, including the bottom of the slide-out control panel, after much of the wiring had been completed.

Coffee Table #2

A closeup view of the right side of the table shows a large bank of IBM relays, the same technology that was used in Coffee Table #1.

Coffee Table #2 Relays

The good news is that the mahogany table did not go to waste. Eventually, it was made into a manually controlled N-scale train table—but not by me. That table is alive and well, living in Illinois.

Coffee Table #2 Reincarnation

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