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The Perfect Christmas Gift: A Quick History of the Toy Train

December 16, 2013

When you think of your favorite toy from childhood, the odds are good it was your first electric train set. For generations, toy trains have filled the Christmas lists of children of all ages. Most of us know that regular sized trains first appeared in the early 19th century, but what is the history behind their smaller-gauge relatives?

The first toy trains came upon the scene before the widespread use of electricity. Some of the more elaborate trains ran on steam or clockwork engines but they were rare, only for wealthier individuals, and did not come with elaborate track setups like modern train sets.

The modern train set came into being at the dawn of the 20th century. At the time, trains were the main form of overland transportation and their popularity had yet to be challenged by airplanes or cars. Most historians credit German Eugen Märklin with inventing and marketing the first true, but non-electrical, train set in 1891. These first trains were so influential that many modern international standards and gauges for toy trains originate from tracks invented by the Märklin Company.

Soon after these first sets hit the market and gained popularity, other inventors entered the arena. The first electric toy train was sold in 1896 by the American company, Carlisle & Finch. It was powered by a 2-pole 10 volt electric motor and traveled on a 3 foot circle of track. Though they were not technically first, the company that changed the landscape of toy, or scale model trains was Lionel.

Founded in 1900, Lionel quickly became the biggest name in the toy train world and by the middle of the century, Lionel’s sales had hit $23 million.  Sadly, as the century wore on, trains, both toy and full-sized, fell out of favor and many of the original toy/model train makers faded away.

Despite this dip in popularity, young and old still enjoy collecting and buying toy and model trains. There are hundreds of well-viewed videos on YouTube, featuring the most amazing and intricate electric train layouts imaginable. Moreover, the list of famous people who have collected model trains includes such diverse names as Johnny Cash, Winston Churchill, Neil Young, and Tom Hanks!

So, this Christmas, whether you are watching your kids play with their first toy train set (or you are enjoying your own model train setup!), remember that you are part of  a long and proud tradition.

If you want to learn more about the past and present of model train or model railroading, there are a number of website you can visit including Model Railroader and Model Railroad News.  And don’t forget, more than likely there is a Keystone product inside.  Merry Christmas to you and your families from Keystone Electronics!