Walt Disney – Hardware Hacker

by Joseph Flaherty on April 4, 2009

disney_cover2Walt Disney’s achievements and legacy in animation and theme parks were largely due to an obsessive commitment to perfection. As his studio became more successful financial pressures from investors forced him to accept lower quality productions. Ever the perfectionist Walt found new outlets for his creative energies where he alone could dictate terms of quality. Walt turned his attention and quest for perfection to the manufacture of a 1:8 scale railroad. From Neal Gabler‘s excellent biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination:

But Walt’s plan was not simply to purchase a train or even to have one made for him at the studio to his specifications. The train, like the animation, was to be all-comsuming — his escape from the animations, as the animations had been intended as an escape from reality. In effect, the train would be his job. And so Walt was going to make the train himself alongside Dick Jones, Eddie Sargeant, and Roger Broggie. At night for three of four hours at a time and for long stretches on weekends, he began visiting the studio machine shop, located near the studio entrance in what were called “boxcars,” where Broggie had set up a workbench for him and taught him how to use the jeweler’s lathe, a miniature drill press, and a milling machine… Fabricating the train became his new passion.

And if he loved the model trains, he also loved this uncomplicated, democratic process of making them — a process in which he was just a “rookie machinist,” as he called himself, and in which there were no expectations on him and no demands. “You know, it does me some good to come down here and find out I don’t know everything” he told Roger Brogie. It was like the early days at the studio when it was still fun.

And Walt enjoyed the craft — the sense of finally doing productive work again and doing it with perfection the way he had done the early features. Indeed, the detail work was such that it demanded perfection. He would carry his unfinished train wheels with him wherevever he went that fall and winter. “If he took his family to Palm Springs the box of wheels went along,” Diane recalled, “and he sat there filing in the sun.” And sitting there filing, Walt Disney was as contented as he had been in years.


Image Credit: Cartoon Brew

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