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The first toy trains were made of lead and had no moving parts. Some had wheels which turned, but these needed to be pulled or pushed. A few 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 red and gold and decorated with hearts and flowers. model trains pueblo co

Around 1875, technological improvements in materials and manufacturing enabled tin to be scraped, cut, rolled, and lithographed faster than previously.
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 guaranteed by selling add-on accessories for decades after the first purchase. In addition to boxed sets containing a train and track, Märklin offered additional 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 followed, with the first appearing in 1897, produced by the U.S. firm Carlisle & Finch. As home use of electricity became more prevalent in the early 20th century, electrical trains gained popularity and as time went 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 and even load and unload cargo. Toy trains from the first half of the 20th century were frequently made of lithographed tin; later trains were frequently made mainly of plastic.
Prior to 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 by kids, while electric trains were marketed towards teens, especially teenaged boys. It was during the 1950s the modern emphasis on realism in model railroading started 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.

Now, S gauge and O gauge railroads are still 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 to 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 a O scale collection.

Many modern electric toy trains contain sophisticated electronics that emit digitized sound effects and permit the operator to securely and easily run multiple remote controller trains on a single loop of track. In recent decades, many toy rail operators may operate a train using a TV camera at the front of the motor and hooked up to a screen, such as computer monitor. This will show a picture, like that of a genuine (smaller size) railroad.

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