The earliest toy trains were made from lead and had no moving parts. Some had wheels that flipped, but these had to be pushed or pulled. Some of the early 19th-century drive toy trains were made from tinplate, such as the big, durable, stylized locomotive toys from the U.S., that were painted gold and red and decorated with hearts and flowers. model trains new hampshire
Around 1875, technological improvements in materials and manufacturing allowed tin to be stamped, cut, rolled, and lithographed faster than previously.
Toy trains were altered when Märklina German firm that specialized in doll house accessories, sought to make an equal toy for boys in which a constant revenue stream could be ensured by purchasing add-on accessories for years after the first purchase. Along with boxed sets containing a train and monitor, Märklin offered additional track, rolling stock, and buildings offered separately, creating the predecessor to the modern model train layout featuring buildings and scenery in addition to an operating train.
Electric trains adopted, with the first appearing in 1897, produced from the U.S. firm Carlisle & Finch. As residential use of electricity became more common from the early 20th century, electric trains gained popularity and as time went on, these electric trains grew in sophistication, gaining lighting, the ability to change direction, to emit a whistling sound, to smoke, to couple and uncouple cars and even load and unload freight. Toy trains from the first half of the 20th century were often made of lithographed tin; later trains were frequently made mainly of plastic.
Pull toys and wind-up trains were marketed by children, while electric trains were marketed towards teenagers, particularly teenaged boys. It was during the 1950s the modern emphasis on realism in model railroading began to grab on. Consumer interest in trains as toys waned in the late 1950s, but has undergone resurgence since the late 1990s due in large part to the popularity of Thomas the Tank Engine.
Today, S gauge and O gauge railroads continue to be considered toy trains even 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 created by Marx in the 1950s into the 1970s). However, due to their high price, one is more likely to locate an HO scale or N scale train set in a toy store than an O scale collection.
Many modern electrical toy trains contain sophisticated electronic equipment which exude digitized sound effects and allow the operator to securely and easily run multiple remote control trains on one loop of course. In recent years, many toy rail operators will operate a train with a TV camera at the front part of the engine and hooked up to a display, such as computer monitor. This will show an image, similar to that of a real (smaller size) railroad.
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