The first toy trains were made of 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 push toy trains were made from tinplate, like the big, durable, stylized locomotive toys from the U.S., that were painted gold and red and decorated with hearts and flowers. transmodeler
Around 1875, technological advancements in materials and manufacturing enabled tin to be scraped, cut, wrapped, and lithographed faster than ever before.
Toy trains were revolutionized when Märklina German company that specialized in doll house accessories, sought to make an equivalent toy for boys where a continuous revenue stream could be guaranteed by purchasing add-on accessories for decades after the initial 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. company 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 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 by the first half of the 20th century were often made of lithographed tin; later trains were often made mostly of plastic.
Pull toys and wind-up trains were marketed towards kids, while electrical trains were marketed towards teens, especially 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.
Now, S gauge and O gauge railroads continue to be considered toy trains even 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, as a result of their high cost, one is more likely to locate an HO scale or N scale train set at a toy store than a O scale set.
Many modern electrical toy trains contain sophisticated electronics that emit digitized sound effects and allow the operator to safely and easily run multiple remote control trains on a single loop of track. In recent years, many toy rail operators may operate a train using a TV camera in the front of the engine and hooked up to a screen, such as pc monitor. This will show a picture, similar to that of a real (smaller size) railroad.
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