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History of Thomas the Tank Engine: From Measles to Beatles

Posted on March 15, 2017

Thomas the Tank Engine, the fictional steam locomotive in The Railway Series books, was created by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry in 1943 to amuse his son, Christopher, during a bout of measles. As Awdry was accompanying the stories with hand-built wooden models of the locomotives, he found that one of the characters, Gordon, was too difficult to replicate, so he instead made a model of a little 0-6-0 tank engine. This little engine naturally looked like a Thomas, and the name stuck. Christopher began requesting stories about Thomas, and the famous book Thomas the Tank Engine ended up being released in 1946.

In 1979, the British writer/producer Britt Allcroft came across the books and arranged a deal to bring the stories to life as the TV series Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. The program became an award-winning hit around the world, with a vast range of spin-off commercial products.

Thomas was used initially as a station pilot engine in the first three stories in book 2, but he longed for more important jobs such as pulling the express train like Gordon; his inexperience prevented this. In the fourth story, Thomas rescues James and is rewarded with his own branch line. He has remained in charge of the Ffarquhar branch ever since with his two coaches, Annie and Clarabel, and help from his best friends, Percy and Toby.

In the book series, Thomas is generally depicted with a cheeky and even self-important personality. He believes that he should be more respected by the others, and he gets annoyed when he does not receive this respect. However, Percy and Toby are more than capable of standing up to him, and Annie and Clarabel often rebuke him.

Thomas’ TV personality was originally faithful to the character in the book, but as the show branched away from the novels, modifications to his personality were made. Thomas became noticeably less arrogant and self-absorbed and developed a friendlier, more altruistic and happy-go-lucky side. In TV he no longer appears to be limited to his branch line and seems to work all over the land of Sodor. These changes in his personality and duties are a result of his “star” status.

The first TV series of 26 stories premiered in October 1984 on the ITV Network in the UK, and former Beatles drummer/vocalist, Ringo Starr, was the storyteller! In the US, beginning in 1989, the stories were featured as segments as part of Shining Time Station with Starr as the show’s Mr. Conductor character. Other storytellers and Mr. Conductor portrayers from the entertainment industry were George Carlin, Alec Baldwin, Michael Brandon, Mark Moraghan and Michael Angelis.

The second book in the series Thomas the Tank Engine included a letter from Aubrey to his son Christopher:

Dear Christopher,
Here is your friend Thomas, the Tank Engine.
He wanted to come out of his station-yard and see the world.
These stories tell you how he did it.
I hope you will like them because you helped me to make them.
Your Loving Daddy

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