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The first toy trains were made from lead and had no moving parts. Some had wheels that turned, but these had to be pushed or pulled. Some of the early 19th-century drive toy rails were made from tinplate, like the big, durable, stylized locomotive toys in the U.S., that were painted red and gold and decorated with hearts and flowers. model trains lgb

Around 1875, technological improvements in materials and manufacturing allowed tin to be scraped, cut, rolled, and lithographed faster than previously.
Toy trains were altered when Märklin, a German firm which specialized in doll house accessories, sought to create an equal toy for boys where a continuous revenue stream could be ensured by selling add-on accessories for decades after the initial purchase. Along with boxed sets comprising a train and track, Märklin offered extra track, rolling stock, and buildings sold separately, creating the predecessor to the modern model train layout featuring scenery and buildings in addition to an operating train.

Electric trains adopted, with the first appearing in 1897, made by the U.S. firm Carlisle & Finch. As home use of power became more common in the early 20th century, electrical trains gained popularity and as time moved on, these electrical trains grew in sophistication, gaining light, the ability to change direction, to emit a whistling sound, to smoke, to couple and uncouple cars as well as load and unload freight. Toy trains from the first half of the 20th century were frequently made of lithographed tin; afterwards trains were often made mostly of plastic.
Before the 1950s, there was little differentiation between toy trains and model railroads–model railroads were toys by definition. Pull toys and wind-up trains were marketed towards kids, while electrical trains were marketed towards teenagers, especially teenaged boys.
Consumer interest in trains as toys waned in the late 1950s, but has experienced resurgence since the late 1990s due in large part to the popularity of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Today, S gauge and O gauge railroads are still considered toy trains by their own adherents and are often accessorized with semi-scale model buildings by Plasticville or K-Line (who owns the rights to the Plasticville-like buildings produced by Marx in the 1950s into the 1970s). However, as a result of their high cost, one is more likely to locate an HO scale or N scale train set at a toy shop than a O scale collection.

Many modern electric toy trains contain sophisticated electronics that emit digitized sound effects and permit the operator to safely and easily run multiple remote controller trains on one loop of course. In recent decades, many toy train operators may operate a train with a TV camera at the front of the motor and hooked up to a display, such as pc monitor. This will show a picture, like that of a real (smaller size) railroad.

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