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Thomas the Tank Engine is a character who’s been around for more than seventy-five years. I remember watching Thomas and Friends on PBS as a child in the nineties, and now my son watches the same character on Netflix and plays with the toys based on the series.
Thomas the train was first created by an Anglican minister, Reverend Wilbert Awdry, in England in 1942. He told stories of little steam trains to his son Christopher when he was sick with measles. With his wife’s encouragement, Awdry eventually wrote the stories down and published The Three Railway Engines in 1945, and twenty-five more books in the series thereafter. The Thomas illustrated in these books was designed by Reginald Payne.
Thomas was actually not a major character in the original series, but rather three trains named Henry, Gordon, and Edward. Later, when Awdry made a model of Thomas for Christopher, Christopher insisted the blue train be included in the series, and Thomas eventually evolved into the titular character of the series. The first toys were sold in 1957, including cardboard pieces for children to put together.
Awdry published his last Thomas book in 1972, and Christopher picked up writing the series in his father’s place in 1983. The story was adapted for television in the United Kingdom in 1984 by Britt Allcroft after she found the books while working on a documentary about steam trains. In 1989, the characters came to PBS in the United States in The Shining Time Station.
The story takes place on the fictional island of Sodor, where Thomas and his friends aim to be really useful engines, with the help of the railway manager, Sir Topham Hat. Along the way, they usually end up getting into a lot of trouble and have lots of fun adventures. In the first episode, Thomas works at a railway station grabbing coaches for bigger engines but keeps teasing one of the big engines named Gordon. Gordon then decides to run really fast with Thomas attached to him to tire Thomas out. One of the most famous episodes comes next and features Henry, a moody train who refuses to come out of a tunnel lest the rain ruins his beautiful green paint and red stripes. Sir Topham Hat teaches him a lesson by building a brick wall to trap him in the tunnel while all the other trains run around him.
Originally animated using stop-motion photography and real train models with a set designed by Wayne White, the series went fully CGI in 2009. It has now gone on for more than twenty seasons. Characters have been voiced by several celebrities, including former Beatle Ringo Starr, George Carlin, Pierce Brosnan, and Alec Baldwin. Between the show and all the toys and merchandise, Thomas and his friends now belong to a franchise worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
There are even life-size, functioning Thomas and Percy replica engines that tour around the United States and Canada. If they stop by near you, you can go on an interactive ride on a real Thomas or Percy train, shop in their pop-up store, visit the photo ops, and play other fun games.
Studies have also found that autistic children are especially able to connect with Thomas. For example, the simple facial expressions on the trains in the original stop-motion photography series help teach autistic children about emotions.
To find out more about Thomas and his friends and play fun games with them, visit their official website thomasandfriends.com.