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The first toy trains were made of lead and had no moving parts. Some had wheels which flipped, but these had to be pushed or pulled. A few of the early 19th-century push toy rails were made from 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 websites

Around 1875, technological advancements in materials and manufacturing allowed tin to be scraped, cut, wrapped, and lithographed faster than previously.
Toy trains were altered when Märklin, a German firm that specialized in doll house accessories, sought to make an equal toy for boys where a continuous revenue stream could be guaranteed by purchasing add-on accessories for years after the first purchase. In addition to boxed sets containing 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 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 from the early 20th century, electric 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 noise, to smoke, to remotely couple and uncouple cars and even load and unload cargo. Toy trains by the first half of the 20th century were frequently made of lithographed tin; afterwards trains were frequently made mostly of plastic.
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 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 are still considered toy trains 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 produced by Marx from the 1950s to the 1970s). However, as a result of their high price, one is more likely to locate an HO scale or N scale train set in a toy store than a O scale collection.

Many modern electrical toy trains comprise sophisticated electronics which exude digitized sound effects and permit the operator to securely and easily run multiple remote controller trains on one loop of track. In recent decades, many toy train operators will operate a train with a TV camera at 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 genuine (smaller size) railroad.

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