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

Around 1875, technological advancements in materials and manufacturing enabled tin to be scraped, cut, rolled, and lithographed faster than ever before.
Toy trains were altered when Märklin, a German company that specialized in doll house accessories, sought to create an equivalent toy for boys where a constant revenue stream could be ensured by purchasing add-on accessories for years after the first purchase. Along with boxed sets comprising a train and track, Märklin offered extra track, rolling stock, and buildings offered separately, creating the predecessor to the modern model train layout featuring buildings and scenery along with an operating train.

Electric trains adopted, with the first appearing in 1897, made from the U.S. firm Carlisle & Finch. As residential use of power became more prevalent in the early 20th century, electric trains gained popularity and as time moved on, these electric trains grew in sophistication, gaining light, the ability to change direction, to emit a whistling sound, to smoke, to remotely couple and uncouple cars as well as load and unload freight. Toy trains from the first half of the 20th century were often made of lithographed tin; later trains were often made mainly of plastic.
Prior to 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 towards children, while electric trains were marketed towards teens, especially teenaged boys.

Now, S gauge and O gauge railroads are still considered toy trains even by their 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 from the 1950s to the 1970s). However, as a result of their high price, one is more inclined to find an HO scale or N scale train set at a toy shop than a O scale set.

Many modern electrical toy trains contain sophisticated electronic equipment that exude 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 in the front of the engine and hooked up to a display, such as computer monitor. This will show an image, similar to that of a genuine (smaller size) railroad)

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