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. Some 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. train model builders
Around 1875, technological improvements in materials and manufacturing enabled tin to be stamped, cut, rolled, and lithographed faster than previously.
Toy trains were revolutionized when Märklin, a German firm which specialized in doll house accessories, sought to create an equal toy for boys where a constant revenue stream could be guaranteed by selling add-on accessories for years after the initial 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 adopted, with the first appearing in 1897, made by the U.S. firm Carlisle & Finch. As residential use of power became more common in the early 20th century, electrical 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 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 often made mostly of plastic.
Before 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 towards children, while electric trains were marketed towards teenagers, particularly teenaged boys. It was during the 1950s that the modern emphasis on realism in model railroading started to grab on.
Now, 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 produced by Marx from the 1950s into the 1970s). However, due to their high price, one is more likely 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 which emit digitized sound effects and permit the operator to securely and easily run multiple remote controller trains on one loop of track. In the last few years, many toy train operators may operate a train using a TV camera in the front of the engine 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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