Full Steam Ahead: Thomas The Tank Engine Turns 65 It's been 65 years since Thomas the Tank Engine first chugged into the hearts of young readers in 1945. Thomas started out as "Edward the Blue Engine" -- star of the many stories the Rev. Wilbert Awdry told his young son, Christopher, while he was sick with the measles.
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Full Steam Ahead: Thomas The Tank Engine Turns 65

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Full Steam Ahead: Thomas The Tank Engine Turns 65

Full Steam Ahead: Thomas The Tank Engine Turns 65

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This month, PBS has launched an updated 21st-century version of "Thomas The Tank Engine," the most famous resident of Sodor Island. The little blue engine who has been on PBS for a quarter century is getting a new look. Gone are the days of stop-motion animation. Now, the show is computer-generated. And for the first time in the TV series, Thomas will have a voice.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Thomas The Tank Engine")

Unidentified Man #1: (as Thomas The Tank Engine) I didn't catch Sir Topham Hatt's grandchildren's kite. Will you all help me?

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Of course, we will, Thomas.

SIEGEL: Thomas and friends are a hot commodity. To date, they have sold more than 100 million books and wooden train accessories worldwide. That's a far cry from the Thomas who first chugged into public view in 1945. Reverend Wilbert Awdry published the tales that he'd been telling his children for several years. The book was called "The Three Railway Engines."

We wondered what the inspiration for the little tank engine was, and so we called on Christopher Awdry, the author's son. He's now 70.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER AWDRY (Writer): The stories were created for me when I was 2 as amusements while I was ill in bed with measles. Father didn't think anything very much of them, but he made me a little model engine the following Christmas as a present, which he happened to paint blue. It happened to have six wheels. He happened to have a one on the side painted and, in time, I asked for some stories about my engine. He then said, well, okay. You know, I can make up stories about your engine, but before I can do that, your engine needs to have a name. Why don't we call him Thomas the Tank Engine?

SIEGEL: Now, the Island of Sodor...

Mr. AWDRY: Uh-huh.

SIEGEL: S-O-D-O-R.

Mr. AWDRY: Yep.

SIEGEL: Where does this come from?

Mr. AWDRY: Well, back in the early '50s, round about 1953, I think, my father went over to the Isle of Man to do a preaching at a Sunday school festival. And when he was over there, he discovered that the bishop over there is actually called the Bishop of Sodor and Man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AWDRY: This is - I won't go into the derivation of the name because it goes back into history and it would be rather too long to go into. But basically it is a historical title. And father, at the time, was beginning to look around for places to put an imaginary railway because he's been getting letters from all over saying, where is Henry's tunnel and where is Gordon's hill and what line - what branch line does Thomas run on and stuff like this.

So on the way back in the airplane to Liverpool, they - he realized that there was a wide open space of sea between the two places and had the idea that if he were to create an island, he could call it Sodor and he could give the Bishop of Sodor and Man the other half of his diocese back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AWDRY: That's the way it was, basically.

SIEGEL: I see.

Mr. AWDRY: And that's how it started.

SIEGEL: Now one other point, the character of Thomas, the personality of Thomas, we should say he's a smaller engine than his friends, most of them anyway.

Mr. AWDRY: Most of them, yeah.

SIEGEL: Is he a child? Is he a kid?

Mr. AWDRY: I think he's a kid at heart.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. AWDRY: He and Percy and perhaps Toby, you know, are a bit, I think, in Pa's imagination anyway, are a bit like three small boys but yet rather more common sense and know-how and streetwise than your average three small boys.

SIEGEL: Well, just - before you go, I wonder if you could tell us, of these characters who've been part of your imaginary life as child and adult now for 65 years, who's your favorite of all these trains?

Mr. AWDRY: Toby. No hesitation about that. Father always used to say that he didn't have favorites because the engines were all his family, and in a family you don't have favorites. They were his family, so I don't have to - I don't necessarily have the same restriction.

No, Toby was my favorite always because a locomotive like Toby was in fact the first one that I was ever allowed to stand on way back in 1952 - August 1952. And as such, you know, it - that was a very special thrill, obviously. And Toby is always the one that I've been most attached to.

SIEGEL: Well, congratulations on Thomas' birthday.

Mr. AWDRY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Actually, this goes farther back than 65 years for you. You were only 2, 68 years ago was when you...

Mr. AWDRY: That's right.

SIEGEL: ...again, hearing all this.

Mr. AWDRY: Yep. Yeah.

SIEGEL: And you're pleased with the voice that Thomas now has in the new...

Mr. AWDRY: Yeah, yeah. I don't have any problem with that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, thank you very much for talking with us about...

Mr. AWDRY: You're very welcome. Thank you.

SIEGEL: ...Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends.

Mr. AWDRY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Seventy-year-old Christopher Awdry, sharing his memories of Thomas the Tank Engine. His father, Reverend Wilbert Awdry introduced the famous locomotive to readers 65 years ago.

(Soundbite of music)

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