The earliest toy trains were made of lead and had no moving parts. Some had wheels which turned, but these had to be pushed or pulled. A few of the early 19th-century drive toy trains were made of tinplate, such as the large, durable, stylized locomotive toys in the U.S., which were painted red and gold and decorated with hearts and flowers. model trains phoenix
Around 1875, technological improvements in materials and manufacturing allowed tin to be stamped, cut, wrapped, and lithographed faster than ever before.
Toy trains were altered when Märklin, a German firm which specialized in doll house accessories, sought to make an equivalent toy for boys in which a constant revenue stream could be guaranteed by selling add-on accessories for years after the first purchase. Along with boxed sets comprising a train and track, Märklin offered additional track, rolling stock, and buildings offered separately, creating the predecessor to the modern model train layout featuring scenery and buildings in addition to an operating train.
Electric trains followed, with the first appearing in 1897, produced by the U.S. firm Carlisle & Finch. As residential use of electricity became more prevalent in the early 20th century, electrical trains gained popularity and as time moved on, these electrical trains grew in sophistication, gaining lighting, the ability to change direction, to emit a whistling noise, to smoke, to couple and uncouple cars as well as load and unload cargo. Toy trains from the first half of the 20th century were often made of lithographed tin; later trains were often made mainly of plastic.
Pull toys and wind-up trains were marketed by kids, 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 catch on.
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 continue to be considered toy trains by their 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 from the 1950s into the 1970s). However, due to their high cost, one is more inclined to find an HO scale or N scale train set at a toy store than an O scale collection.
Many modern electrical toy trains comprise sophisticated electronic equipment that emit digitized sound effects and permit the operator to securely and easily run multiple remote control trains on one loop of course. In recent decades, many toy train operators will operate a train with a TV camera in the front of the motor and hooked up to a screen, such as computer monitor. This will show a picture, similar to that of a real (smaller size) railroad.
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