Thomas the Tank Engine is a small fictional steam locomotive in The Railway Series books by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry and his son, Christopher.
He became the most popular character in the series, and is the titular character in the accompanying television spin-off series, Thomas & Friends.
Thomas is a tank engine, painted blue with red lining, and displays the running number one. All of the locomotives in The Railway Series were based on prototypical engines; Thomas has origins in the E2 Class designed by Lawson Billinton in 1913. Thomas first appeared in 1946 in the second book in the series, Thomas the Tank Engine, and was the focus of the four short stories contained within. Thomas’ best friends are Percy and Toby.
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 (later simplified to Thomas & Friends). The program became an award-winning hit around the world, with a vast range of spin-off commercial products.
When Awdry created Thomas, the engine existed only as a wooden toy made for his son Christopher. This engine looked rather different from the character in the books and television series, and carried the letters NW on its side tanks. Awdry claimed that this stood for “No Where”; as the Railway Series and its backstory developed, the railway Thomas and his friends worked on became known as the North Western Railway.
Thomas wasn’t originally based on a prototype; rather, the initial stories were an accompaniment to the toy made for Christopher. After Awdry’s wife encouraged him to publish the stories, the publisher of the second book in The Railway Series, Thomas the Tank Engine, hired an illustrator named Reginald Payne. Awdry selected a real locomotive for Payne to work from to create authenticity; a Billinton designed 0-6-0 E2 Class of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. This may have been chosen simply because Awdry had a photograph to hand. Thomas is one of half a dozen locomotives fitted with an extension to the front of the water tanks. While the language used and the behaviors exhibited often closely resemble those of real locomotives there are some significant and artistic differences. For example, Thomas’s wheels are driven by internal cylinders typical of such tank engines. The cranks and connecting rods are therefore not externally visible.
Awdry was unsatisfied with one detail of the illustration—the fact that the front end of his footplate featured a downward slope, which meant that his front and back buffers were at different levels. This was an illustrator’s mistake that was perpetuated in subsequent books. The accident, in “Thomas Comes to Breakfast” was partly devised as a means of correcting this. Thomas has always been shown with a curved front buffer beam in the television series.
Unfortunately, despite creating the visual image of such an iconic character, Payne did not receive any credit for his work, and it is only since the publication of Brian Sibley’s The Thomas the Tank Engine Man that he has started to receive major recognition. It had often been erroneously assumed that C. Reginald Dalby created the character, as he was responsible for illustrating books 3–11 and repainting the illustrations of book 1.
Thomas arrived on Sodor in 1915, when The Fat Controller bought the locomotive for a nominal sum to be a pilot engine at Vicarstown. After rescuing James in Thomas & the Breakdown Train, he became a “Really Useful Engine” and was rewarded by being put in charge of the Ffarquhar branchline. Although Thomas is seen today on various heritage railways, the last of the LB&SCR E2 class was scrapped in 1963.