Steam engines were the backbone of railroading until the early 1950s. Little wonder, then, that most vintage model trains were based on real-life steam locomotives, even though very few of these toys actually ran on live steam. Early tinplate toy trains, for example, made largely in Germany by companies like Lehmann, Bing, Issmayer, Carette, Günthermann, and Märklin, ran on clockwork engines.

Around 1900, Märklin in Germany and Carlisle & Finch in the United States introduced the first electric train sets. Before long, German manufacturers like Bing and Karl Bub, as well as American makers like American Flyer, Ives, Lionel, and Marx, were selling electric toy locomotives alongside their clockwork ones.

Manufacturers in Great Britain, the country credited with inventing the railway, produced very few toy trains in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the “learning” toys made there did run on live steam. Sold by specialist companies such as Newton, Bateman, H.J. Wood, John Theobald, Lucas, and Davis, these steam-power brass toy locomotives were known as “dribblers” or “piddlers” because they left a trail of water and alcohol as they ran across the floor. Heavy and expensive, these engines, branded with names like Stevens Model Dockyard and Clyde Model Dockyard, were offered with a just few pieces of rolling stock made out of mahogany.

Intended for young engineers, the toys were actually rather dangerous. Components of a dribbler included a boiler for the water, a kerosene or alcohol lamp that warmed the water, and a steam chest containing pressurized steam. In 1871, American Eugene Beggs introduced an safer live-steam toy train that dribbled significantly less. Then, in 1888, Weeden Manufacturing Company put out the elegant live-steam Weeden Dart locomotive, which was an instant hit.

European manufacturers quickly followed suit with better dribblers to sell in America, like the high-end O gauge Carette. In 1906 and 1909, Märklin made a live-steam train set, inspired by George and Robert Stephenson’s famous 1829 steam engine Rocket, but given the lack of examples on the market today, it seems few were sold or produced.

Around 1905, the Metropolitan Railway in London, now known as London’s Underground Metropolitan Line, was incrementally converted from steam-power to electricity. Hornby, the esteemed British toy train manufacturer that first debuted its clockwork locomotive set in 1920, made the brilliant move of patterning its first electric train set after the Metropolitan Line, an actual electric train.

However, steam trains had a devoted following among model-train enthusiasts—be they little boys or adults—and so toy train companies continued to churn models out. As most manufa...

After World War II, competition heated up between Lionel and American Flyer, as the companies vied to see who could come up with the most exciting features. Lionel led the way with two patents, a realistic knuckle coupler and an on-board whistle. But perhaps most thrilling of all was the appearance of real smoke coming out of the smokestack.

For the Lionel electric steam locomotive released in 1946, these puffs of smoke were made of nitrogen oxide, created by burning a pellet of ammonium nitrate. Breathing enough of this smoke could cause eye-watering and coughing, and when swallowed, the pellets caused dizziness, heaves, and diarrhea, but these dangers were considered a small price for realism at the time.

American Flyer’s 1946 locomotives, on the other hand, produced a more billowing effect with a “choo-choo” sound, using a petroleum-based cedar-scented liquid that was nontoxic. Quickly, Lionel scientists formulated an even less-toxic smoke pellet and a hot-wire smoking device.

Joshua Lionel Cowen was particularly fond of those smoking steam engines, so it was with great reluctance that he agreed to let Lionel reproduce the brick-like look of the new, modern diesel engines. These came styled as the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, which ran super-fast trains from Chicago to Los Angeles, and the New York Central Railway. To Cowen’s surprise, the diesel models were a big hit, particularly with kids on the West Coast who could finally get a toy of a train they were familiar with.

However, when Hornby introduced its English Electric Type 1 Bo-Bo Diesel Electric Locomotive in 1958, train hobbyists were more upset that it was modeled after the controversial diesel engine than the fact its body was made in plastic, not metal.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Airfix Model Railways

Airfix Model Railways

Dave McCarthy's Airfix Model Railway treasure trove is an in-depth archive of the company's plastic railway kits fr… [read review or visit site]

Gateway NMRA

Gateway NMRA

This great reference site for model railroaders, from the Gateway (St. Louis) division of the NMRA (National Model … [read review or visit site]

HOseeker.net

HOseeker.net

This site is a treasure trove of HO scale model railroad manufacturer catalogs and other reference information, inv… [read review or visit site]

Postwar Lionel Trains Library

Postwar Lionel Trains Library

Bernie Schulz’s Lionel Trains Library focuses exclusively on postwar Lionel trains and accessories. The site cont… [read review or visit site]

Eric's Trains

Eric's Trains

Eric Siegel's site displays his collection of O-gauge/O-scale trains, tracks, turntables, and other accessories. A … [read review or visit site]

Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT

Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT

MIT's model railroad club, as one might expect, has one of the best websites for learning about how people play wit… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique / Vintage Doll Twin Cylinder Live Steam Engine Toy - Model 362 ? Twin Cylinder Flame Eater Engine - No SteamModel Steam EngineVintage, Working Model Steam Engine 1971 Years.Steam Engine, Stuart, Number 1,Steam EngineMth #20-3024-1 N&w J Die-cast Steam Locomotive And Tender, O ScaleRivarossi Ho Scale Milwaukee Road 4-6-4 Hiawatha Steam LocomotiveEarly Live Steam Locomotive Weeden ??? Great Condition O Gauge Circa Late 20sO Scale 2-rail Brass Wmc B&o #6184 P-7 4-6-2 Steam Loco President WashingtonLgb 2015d Steam Engine Locomotive W/ Sound Coal Tender G-scale In Orig. Box Nr!!Bachmann Spectrum G Scale Trains No 81295 2-8-0 Narrow Gauge Steam Loco W/ SoundO Scale 2 Rail Dc Steam LocomotiveHo Broadway Ltd 268 Cb&q #809 2-8-2 Mikado Steam Locomotive Dcc Sound BurlingtonLive Steam 4-6-2 Pacific Locomotive & TenderLionel Trains Post-war No.2026 2-6-2 Steam Locomotive & Tender, O GaugeMth #20-3023-1 W.v.p.&p. Shay Steam Engine And Tender, O ScaleLgb 2018 D D.s.p. & P.r.r. Mogul Steam Locomotive & Tender, G Scale W/boxCil P.r.r. Steam Turbine Class 6-8-6Blackstone Models Hon3 K-27 2-8-2 Narrow Gauge Steam Locomotive Denver&rio G.Ho Brass Pfm United Atsf #3783 4-8-4 Steam & Tender Custom Weathered Pfm SoundNice Used Lgb 20851 G Scale Green Hanomag 0-6-6-0 Mallet Steam Locomotive In BoxLionel 203 0-6-0 Steam Locomotive W/2203t TenderHornsby Oo Ho Scale Stephenson's Rocket Steam EngineMib!! Lgb 69572 Black & Red Powered Tender W/ Steam Sound G-scale Nr!!Lot Of 2 N Scale 4-6-2 Pacific Steam Locomotives W/ Tenders - Lot #2Kato N €O Gauge -k-line Nyc Empire State Express Steam Engine & Tender Cab # 5426 Gb EsK-line Pennsylvania A5 Steam Switcher And Tender #913, K-3810-0913s Train Brass Ho Gauge Maryland & Pennsylvania Unpainted 2-8-0 Steam Engine, O.b.N Brass Key Imports Sp #3251 2-8-2 Steam Locomotive & Tender Southern PacificAccucraft/ams Ac77-012 Deluxe Ruby #2 1:20.3 Live SteamModel Live Steam PumpBowser Ho K-11 Pacific Steam Locomotive Kit Southern Pacific SpRivarossi Ho Scale Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 Big Boy # 4001 Steam LocomotiveHo Scale Brass Akane Sp #4205 Ac-10 4-8-8-2 Cab Fwd Steam Southern PacificLionel 6-18754 6-18754 Polar Express Berkshire W/whistle Steam ExLot Of 11 Ho Steam & Diesel Locomotive Engines Parts RepairLive Steam Train Winton Steam EngineHo Scale - Athern Genesis 4-8-4 Union Pacific Fef#3 Steam Engine W/tender Gb EsLionel Locomotive Prewar Steam Engine Train 262e Railroad O Scale Gauge CopperL.g.b. 0-4-4 Forney Steam Engine #20251Ae American Flyer Steam Locomotive Silver Bullet 356 Repaint Satin S Scale O Gauge American Flyer Pre-war K-5 4-6-2 Steam Freight Set W/7 Cars Gb EsBrass Duluth Missabe Iron Range Railway Steam Locomotive E-1 2-10-2 Key Factory American Flyer S Scale 4-6-2 Steam Locomotive & Tender B&o The Royal Blue 350Custom Built Ho Brass Steam Shovel, Logging Mining ConstructionBachmann Norfolk & Western Ho Gauge Class J 4-8-4- Steam Engine & Tender Weaver Great Northern 4-8-2 P-2 Class Steam LocomotiveMth 20-3031-1 Scale Pennsylvania 4-6-0 G-5 Steam Locomotive Prr - New In BoxAmerican Flyer Train Set 283 4-6-2 Steam Engine Operating Passenger Car Track Kato N €Lionel 736 2-8-4 Berkshire Steam Locomotive W/2046w TenderBowser 531 Ho Usra Light Mikado Steam Locomotive Kit W/brass Detail KitWestside Models Wmc Ho Brass Freelance 2-10-0 The Brute Steam Engine - BoxedLionel 736 2-8-4 Berkshire Steam Locomotive/boxAmerican Flyer "o" Gauge 4629 Streamline Steam Loco & 3 Pass Cars, All Original!Ho 1:87 Rivarossi Berkshire 2-8-4 Steam Locomotive Pere Marquette #1222 Lionel O Gauge Train 736 Berkshire 2-8-4 Steam Locomotive & Tender W/ Cars2 Prewar Lionel Steam Engines No 1688 And 221 In Very Good Condition