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5 Model Train Sets That Won’t Fit Under the Christmas Tree

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In this age of video game consoles and iPads, it’s easy to forget there was a time when miniature trains were at the top of every kid’s holiday wish list. While the hobby isn’t as popular as it once was, the kids who loved miniature trains haven’t gone away—they’ve just gotten older and more ambitious. No longer content with a train that runs in a circle on the living room floor, here are five really big examples of really tiny train sets.

1. Miniatur Wunderland

In the late 1990s, twin brothers Frederik and Gerrit Braun of Germany decided to sell their successful nightclub, unload their hit record label, and go into model trains. Everyone thought they were nuts—but the brothers were able to secure a loan for 2 million German marks, which they used to lease part of an empty, three-story warehouse in Hamburg, and start building their dream, called Miniatur Wunderland. Since opening in 2001, Wunderland has grown to become the largest model train collection in the world, with 930 trains consisting of over 14,450 wagons running on over eight miles of track.

Broken into eight sections inspired by real-world locations like Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, and America, as well as a fictional town called Knuffingen, this “miniature wonderland” features over 215,000 model people engaged in every activity imaginable—from everyday jobs to picnicking in the park to committing crimes and, yes, even tiny little scale-model sexcapades. While many figures stand frozen in time, about 200 animated scenarios can be started at the push of a button by any of the one million annual visitors to this very popular tourist destination.

In addition to trains, there are 250 computer-controlled vehicles that scoot around the streets, including fire trucks dispatched on a regular basis to handle miniature emergencies. Visitors will also find ships floating in a model sea that contains nearly 8,000 gallons of water, and marvel as 40 airplanes take off and land while miniature ground crews scoot around the 1,600 square foot, €3.5 million Knuffingen International Airport. Thanks to a sophisticated light show, a day only lasts 15 minutes in Wunderland, so visitors won’t have to wait long before they get a chance to see some of the 335,000 LED lights that bring the world to life after dark.

The Brothers Braun have plans to add new areas of Wunderland through 2020, including new sections modeled after France, Italy, England, and parts of Africa. They also plan to add another four miles of track, about 400 more trains, 6000 more wagons, double the population of “people,” and wire up another 200,000 lights.

2. Grand Street & Three Rivers Railroad


Photo courtesy of Model Railroader magazine.

When enthusiasts set out to create a large model railway, they choose a theme or a specific time period they want to reflect in the model. One wealthy creator chose to create his Grand Street and Three Rivers Railroad in a fictional post-World War II city inspired by Manhattan and Chicago, which he calls Three Rivers City. The 23 by 124-foot model features multiple skyscrapers—some as high as 5 feet tall—towering over sprawling city streets, complete with hundreds of bustling pedestrians and cars populating multiple industrial districts throughout the tiny town. Creating such a massive and detailed model isn’t cheap, but luckily the man behind the Three Rivers Railroad is none other than rock star Rod Stewart.

Although he never had a model train as a kid, Stewart got the rail bug early in life after growing up close to a British Rail train yard. He began building models while on tour to help him relax (which he still does today), but he didn’t really take the hobby seriously until 1993. That was when he decided to set aside a room in his new Beverly Hills mansion specifically for a large model railroad. Since then, Stewart has made nearly every building in Three Rivers City by hand, often combining more than one model kit together—a practice called “kitbashing”—to achieve the results he has in mind.

Only a few people have actually seen Three Rivers City in person, though Stewart has welcomed Model Railroader magazine into his home for photos and interviews. Based on these glimpses, some in the model railroading community are placing his modeling skills as among the best in the history of the hobby.

3. Franklin & South Manchester


Photo courtesy of Thom's Custom Trains

Since 1967, Fine Scale Miniatures (FSM) in Peabody, Massachusetts has been known for its high-quality model railway structure kits, like train depots, coal companies, and a watchworks factory. As a way to showcase their products, owner George Sellios began construction of a massive 1600 square foot diorama in 1985 that has since become one of the most famous model railroads in the world.

Sellios’ Franklin & South Manchester (F&SM) Railroad is set in a Depression-era New England town, where buildings are falling into disrepair, where the paint on signs has faded, and moss has slowly overtaken the bridges and byways. Sellios is known as one of the masters of model railroading, and it’s no surprise when you see the work done to bring the F&SM to life.

The layout of the F&SM is constantly changing—Sellios works on the model three months out of the year, and spends the rest of his time developing new kits. While there are photos online of the layout, they simply can’t do it justice; the best way to see Sellios’ incredible miniature work is to call ahead and schedule an appointment.

4. The Great Train Story

In 1941, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry unveiled a 2940 square-foot model train with over 1000 feet of track. The train featured the Santa Fe Railway, which financed the project, and showed how rail was being used across the country as freight and passenger trains traveled in a mock journey from Chicago to Los Angeles. As technologies changed, the railroad was often updated, but after 60 years, time had taken its toll. When the rail was closed in May 2002, only one of the 10 trains could run at a time.

Although the old model train had been shut down and dismantled, there was a new and improved line waiting at the station. In November 2002, after receiving $3.5 million in donations, and employing more than 40 artists and modelers for more than a year, The Great Train Story exhibit was opened to the public.

With 34 trains running simultaneously on 17 tracks, across a 3500 square foot diorama, there’s no shortage of railroading excitement for visitors. The main attraction, though, is three trains that run from Chicago to Seattle—a 2,206-mile journey covered in 1,425 feet of miniature tracks that feature plenty of twists, turns, and real-world iconic buildings and landscapes that a traveler would see along the way. There are 192 custom-built structures, including scale representations of the Space Needle and the Willis (Sears) Tower, as well as nearly 1500 miniature people, and over 1000 model vehicles.

5. The Diablo Valley Lines


Photo courtesy Captive Wild Woman.

A nondescript, two-story building at a public park in Walnut Creek, California, is the headquarters of the ominously named Diablo Valley Lines (DVL), one of the largest model railroads in the United States. Since 1974, the members of the Walnut Creek Model Railroad Society have been working countless hours on their impressive 1900 square foot layout, with about 4300 feet of track laid by hand using 175,000 toothpick-like ties and railroad spikes the size of staples. Not only is the DVL considered one of the longest continuous tracks in the country, but it’s believed to have the highest elevation of rail, with tracks about 7 feet above the rest of the layout on a mountain that peaks around 15 feet off the ground.

Because the line has been operating for so long, the controls are a bit archaic when compared to a modern, computer-controlled system. The DVL is operated by magnetic relay switches from the 1930s that were antiques when they were installed. The relays, originally used to route telephone calls, are hooked up to miles of electrical wires that snake under the layout, and are still capable of controlling up to 10 trains simultaneously, with the help of 25 Society members, during the club’s monthly public exhibitions.

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You Can Now Order Food Through Facebook
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After a bit of controversy over its way of aggregating news feeds and some questionable content censoring policies, it’s nice to have Facebook roll out a feature everyone can agree on: allowing you to order food without leaving the social media site.

According to a press release, Facebook says that the company decided to begin offering food delivery options after realizing that many of its users come to the social media hub to rate and discuss local eateries. Rather than hop from Facebook to the restaurant or a delivery service, you’ll be able to stay within the app and select from a menu of food choices. Just click “Order Food” from the Explore menu on a desktop interface or under the “More” option on Android or iOS devices. There, you’ll be presented with options that will accept takeout or delivery orders, as well as businesses participating with services like Delivery.com or EatStreet.

If you need to sign up and create an account with Delivery.com or Jimmy John’s, for example, you can do that without leaving Facebook. The feature is expected to be available nationally, effective immediately.

[h/t Forbes]

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ETH Zurich
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Medicine
This Soft Artificial Heart May One Day Shorten the Heart Transplant List
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ETH Zurich

If the heart in the Functional Materials Laboratory at ETH Zurich University were in a patient in an operating room, its vital signs would not be good. In fact, it would be in heart failure. Thankfully, it's not in a patient—and it's not even real. This heart is made of silicone.

Suspended in a metal frame and connected by tubes to trays of water standing in for blood, the silicone heart pumps water at a beat per second—a serious athlete's resting heart rate—in an approximation of the circulatory system. One valve is leaking, dripping onto the grate below, and the water bins are jerry-rigged with duct tape. If left to finish out its life to the final heartbeat, it would last for about 3000 beats before it ruptured. That's about 30 minutes—not long enough to finish an episode of Grey's Anatomy

Nicolas Cohrs, a bioengineering Ph.D. student from the university, admits that the artificial heart is usually in better shape. The one he holds in his hands—identical to the first—feels like taut but pliable muscle, and is intact and dry. He'd hoped to demonstrate a new and improved version of the heart, but that one is temporarily lost, likely hiding in a box somewhere at the airport in Tallinn, Estonia, where the researchers recently attended a symposium.

Taking place over the past three years, the experimental research is a part of Zurich Heart, a project involving 17 researchers from multiple institutions, including ETH, the University of Zurich, University Hospital of Zurich, and the German Heart Institute in Berlin, which has the largest artificial heart program in Europe.

A BRIDGE TO TRANSPLANT—OR TO DEATH

Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to support the organs; common causes are coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. It's a global pandemic, threatening 26 million people worldwide every year. More than a quarter of them are in the U.S. alone, and the numbers are rising.

It's a life-threatening disease, but depending on the severity of the condition at the time of diagnosis, it's not necessarily an immediate death sentence. About half of the people in the U.S. diagnosed with the disease die within five years. Right now in the U.S., there are nearly 4000 people on the national heart transplant list, but they're a select few; it's estimated that upwards of 100,000 people need a new heart. Worldwide, demand for a new heart greatly outpaces supply, and many people die waiting for one.

That's why Cohrs, co-researcher Anastasios Petrou, and their colleagues are attempting to create an artificial heart modeled after each patient's own heart that would, ideally, last for the rest of a person's life.

Mechanical assistance devices for failing hearts exist, but they have serious limitations. Doctors treating heart failure have two options: a pump placed next to the heart, generally on the left side, that pumps the blood for the heart (what's known as a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD), or a total artificial heart (TAH). There have been a few total artificial hearts over the years, and at least four others are in development right now in Europe and the U.S. But only one currently has FDA approval and CE marking (allowing its use in European Union countries): the SynCardia total artificial heart. It debuted in the early '90s, and since has been implanted in nearly 1600 people worldwide.

While all implants come with side effects, especially when the immune system grows hostile toward a foreign object in the body, a common problem with existing total artificial hearts is that they're composed of hard materials, which can cause blood to clot. Such clots can lead to thrombosis and strokes, so anyone with an artificial heart has to take anticoagulants. In fact, Cohrs tells Mental Floss, patients with some sort of artificial heart implant—either a LVAD or a TAH—die more frequently from a stroke or an infection than they do from the heart condition that led to the implant. Neurological damage and equipment breakdown are risky side effects as well.

These complications mean that total artificial hearts are "bridges"—either to a new heart, or to death. They're designed to extend the life of a critically ill patient long enough to get on (or to the top of) the heart transplant list, or, if they're not a candidate for transplant, to make the last few years of a person's life more functional. A Turkish patient currently holds the record for the longest time living with a SynCardia artificial heart: The implant has been in his chest for five years. Most TAH patients live at least one year, but survival rates drop off after that.

The ETH team set out to make an artificial heart that would be not a bridge, but a true replacement. "When we heard about these problems, we thought about how we can make an artificial heart that doesn't have side effects," he recalls.

USING AN ANCIENT TECHNIQUE TO MAKE A MODERN MARVEL

Using common computer assisted design (CAD) software, they designed an ersatz organ composed of soft material that hews closely to the composition, form, and function of the human heart. "Our working hypothesis is that when you have such a device which mimics the human heart in function and form, you will have less side effects," Cohrs says.

To create a heart, "we take a CT scan of a patient, then put it into a computer file and design the artificial heart around it in close resemblance to the patient's heart, so it always fits inside [the body]," Cohrs says.

But though it's modeled on a patient's heart and looks eerily like one, it's not identical to the real organ. For one thing, it can't move on its own, so the team had to make some modifications. They omitted the upper chambers, called atria, which collect and store blood, but included the lower chambers, called ventricles, which pump blood. In a real heart, the left and right sides are separated by the septum. Here, the team replaced the septum with an expansion chamber that is inflated and deflated with pressurized air. This action mimics heart muscle contractions that push blood from the heart.

The next step was to 3D-print a negative mold of the heart in ABS, a thermoplastic commonly used in 3D printing. It takes about 40 hours on the older-model 3D printers they have in the lab. They then filled this mold with the "heart" material—initially silicone—and let it cure for 36 hours, first at room temperature and then in an oven kept at a low temperature (about 150°F). The next day, they bathed it in a solvent of acetone, which dissolved the mold but left the printed heart alone. This process is essentially lost-wax casting, a technique used virtually unchanged for the past 4000 years to make metal objects, especially bronze. It takes about four days.

The resulting soft heart weighs about 13 ounces—about one-third more than an average adult heart (about 10 ounces). If implanted in a body, it would be sutured to the valves, arteries, and veins that bring blood through the body. Like existing ventricular assist devices and total artificial hearts on the market, it would be powered by a portable pneumatic driver worn externally by the patient.

FROM 3000 TO 1 MILLION HEARTBEATS

In April 2016, they did a feasibility test to see if their silicone organ could pump blood like a real heart. First they incorporated state-of-the-art artificial valves used every day in heart surgeries around the world. These would direct the flow of blood. Then, collaborating with a team of mechanical engineers from ETH, they placed the heart in a hybrid mock circulation machine, which measures and simulates the human cardiovascular system. "You can really measure the relevant data without having to put your heart into an animal," says Cohrs.

Here's what the test looked like.

"Our results were very nice," Cohrs says. "When you look at the pressure waveform in the aorta, it really looked like the pressure waveform from the human heart, so that blood flow is very comparable to the blood flow from a real human heart."

Their results were published earlier this year in the journal Artificial Organs.

But less promising was the number of heartbeats the heart lasted before rupturing under stress. (On repeated tests, the heart always ruptured in the same place: a weak point between the expansion chamber and the left ventricle where the membrane was apparently too thin.) With the average human heart beating 2.5 billion times in a lifetime, 3000 heartbeats wouldn't get a patient far.

But they're making progress. Since then, they've switched the heart material from silicone to a high-tech polymer. The latest version of the heart—one of which was stuck in that box in the Tallinn airport—lasts for 1 million heartbeats. That's an exponential increase from 3000—but it's still only about 10 days' worth of life.

Right now, the heart costs around $400 USD to produce, "but when you want to do it under conditions where you can manufacture a device where it can be implanted into a body, it will be much more expensive," Cohrs says.

The researchers know they're far from having produced an implantable TAH; this soft heart represents a new concept for future artificial heart development that could one day lead to transplant centers using widely available, easy-to-use design software and commercially available 3D-printers to create a personalized heart for each patient. This kind of artificial heart would be not a bridge to transplantation or, in a few short years, death, but one that would take a person through many years of life.

"My personal goal is to have an artificial heart where you don't have side effects and you don't have any heart problems anymore, so it would last pretty much forever," Cohrs says. Well, perhaps not forever: "An artificial heart valve last 15 years at the moment. Maybe something like that."

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