The earliest toy trains were made of lead and had no moving parts. Some had wheels that turned, but these needed to be pushed or pulled. A few of the early 19th-century push toy trains were made from tinplate, such as the large, durable, stylized locomotive toys from the U.S., that were painted red and gold and decorated with hearts and flowers. model trains only
Around 1875, technological advancements in materials and manufacturing allowed tin to be scraped, cut, rolled, and lithographed faster than ever before.
Toy trains were altered when Märklina German company which specialized in doll house accessories, sought to create an equivalent toy for boys in which a constant revenue stream could be ensured by selling add-on accessories for years after the first purchase. In addition to boxed sets comprising a train and track, Märklin offered additional track, rolling stock, and buildings sold separately, creating the predecessor to the modern model train layout featuring buildings and scenery along with a working train.
Electric trains followed, with the first appearing in 1897, produced by the U.S. firm Carlisle & Finch. As home use of electricity became more common in the early 20th century, electric trains gained popularity and as time went on, these electric trains grew in sophistication, gaining light, the ability to change management, to emit a whistling noise, to smoke, to remotely couple and uncouple cars as well as load and unload freight. Toy trains by the first half of the 20th century were often made of lithographed tin; afterwards trains were often made mostly of plastic.
Before the 1950s, there was little distinction between toy trains and model railroads–model railroads were toys by definition. Pull toys and wind-up trains were marketed by children, while electric trains were marketed towards teenagers, especially teenaged boys.
Today, S gauge and O gauge railroads continue to be considered toy trains by their own adherents and are often accessorized with semi-scale model buildings by Plasticville or even K-Line (who owns the rights to the Plasticville-like buildings created by Marx in the 1950s to the 1970s). However, as a result of their high cost, one is more likely to find an HO scale or N scale train set in a toy store than a O scale set.
Many modern electric toy trains contain sophisticated electronic equipment which exude digitized sound effects and permit the operator to securely and easily run several remote controller trains on a single loop of track. In recent years, many toy train operators will operate a train using a TV camera at the front part of the motor and hooked up to a screen, such as computer monitor. This will show a picture, similar to that of a genuine (smaller size) railroad.
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