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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | TECH CAREERS / KATHLEEN O'STEEN

I Was a Middle-Aged Demi-Conductor

March 31, 1997|KATHLEEN O'STEEN | Kathleen O'Steen is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

Once he had finished his internship to become an emergency-room doctor, Joe Devlin never dreamed that 15 years later he'd be contemplating a new career.

But after years of working in ERs and urgent-care medical centers, Devlin found that he had grown tired of never having enough time or resources to practice "real" medicine.

"For me, real medicine is about treating people, listening to them, educating them about their health," says Devlin. "A lot of diagnosis is about listening to people. I no longer had the time to do that."

Devlin, 50, began to think of a career working with computers. "I had early training in computer programming, so I thought about changing careers." But the advice he received from professionals in the field was discouraging.

"They told me that I was basically unhirable," Devlin recalls. "Since I was a doctor, I was too high-paid, too well-educated and too old to even be considered for entry-level stuff."

So Devlin kept working as a doctor with dreams of doing something else. His brother, Mike, soon gave him an idea.

"Walt Disney had a train in the yard of his house, and Mike always thought that was the coolest thing," says Devlin. "So we thought, 'We're handy guys. We can do this.' "

What started out as a sideline venture would soon turn into a business. Using his background in physics, Devlin began studying large-scale locomotives. "All that was available then [for hobbyists] were steam locomotives," Devlin says. "And you either had to be wealthy or a machinist to have one."

Devlin decided to design a battery-operated train one-twelfth the size of a full-size train. "I wanted there to be no adjustments, no fussing," Devlin says. "Just charge the battery and that's it."

After building three locomotive prototypes, he settled on one and sold the first train in 1989. "The hardest part was figuring how to power the drive train in a space not big enough for a diesel engine," he says.

And he was still designing parts on a drafting table. In 1991 he bought a Macintosh and never looked back. "At that point I'd been having trouble with the locomotive's gearboxes, which I was buying off the shelf," he says.

"They just weren't strong enough. I wanted my train to easily pull a ton of passengers, and I was finding that some of the gearboxes failed. So I knew I'd have to design my own gearbox."

It was the first thing he designed on the Mac. "I could put into my computer the space I had and the gears I needed and design it right there on the screen."

By 1995, Devlin had a full product line and was ready to quit his job at an urgent-care center.

Last year was the first he devoted entirely to trains. His Garden Grove-based company, Iron Pony, offers kits for trains that are one-eighth and one-twelfth the size of the real thing. He also sells kits for passenger cars, many of them models of old Streamliners. Prices range from $2,500 (for a passenger car) to $5,000 (for a locomotive) or more.

He's also built models for several films, including "Broken Arrow" and "Speed" (for which he helped design miniature subway cars).

"Most everyone I sell to is a train hobbyist," he says. "And most of them aren't wealthy. This is a hobby that's cheaper than owning a boat."

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