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    

Lionel # 773 "o" Gauge Hudson Steam Loco 1950 W/ 2426w Ln/ob Great! (dakotapaul)Antique Brass Live Steam EngineVintage Old Bing Cast Iron Windup Steam Passenger Train Set W/ Track Tin MetalMarklin "sk-800" Streamlined Steam Loco & Tender, & 3-rail Tracks, Very Nice!!American Flyer No. 21145 Nickel Plate Road 0-8-0 Steam Switcher & TenderLive Stationary Steam Beam EngineL.g.b 25872 Southern Mikado Steam Locomotive W/ Sound, Smoke, Mts *new In Box*Aster Real Steam Locomotive Real Steam Propane Engine Brass Outside Use G ScaleHo-brass Empire-midland New Haven 4-6-0 Steam LocomotiveTwin Cylinder Steam Marine EngineBroadway Limited 006 Prr M1a Steam Locomotive 6775 Dc Dcc W/ Quantum SoundBroadway Limited 008 Prr M1b Steam Locomotive 6704 Dc Dcc W/ Quantum SoundHo Bachmann Spectrum 82307 Unlettered Baldwin 4-6-0 Steam Locomotive High Boiler Model Live Steam Engine American Flyer Trains New York Central Diecast Hudson Steam Engine Set No 322 Ho Scale Arbour Models S10w-3 Sierra 4-6-0 Steam Locomotive Kit G Gauge Lgb Uintah Railway #50 2-6-6-2 Steam Custom Weathered W/ Dcc & SoundG Gauge Lgb St&t #22 Forney Steam Locomotive Custom Weathered W/ Dcc & SoundAccucraft 77012 1:20.3 Scale Brass Ruby Live Steam Locomotive Ex/boxLionel 265e & 1666 Prewar Steam Locomotives (2)Lot 31: Ihc Chicago & Alton #5299 4-6-2 Pacific Steam Locomotive HoLiliput 4-6-0 "383632" Green Steam Locomotive & Tender. Missing Wheel.ho Scale. Model Live Steam Fittings Stuart TurnerKtm, 0-4-0 Steam Engine & Tender, Ho Scale Brass Loco, For Parts Or RestorationOld Marx 0 Die-cast 4-6-2 Steam Engine 333 W/ Smoke Runs Lgb G Scale Steam Engine Tender For Small Locomotive . With Sound. Hon3 Brass 0-4-0 Steam Engines, Two For One Bid, For Parts Or Restoration OnlyLionel 681 6-8-6 Die-cast S2 Steam Locomotive W/2046w Tender/boxAmerican Flyer S Gauge No.312 Prr 4-6-2 Pacific Steam Engine & Tender W/wrapperFleischmann 4093 Ho 0-10-0 Steam Tank Loco Excellent Box Condition ModellbahnenLionel 763e Lionel Lines Semi-scale Hudson Steam LocomotiveHorizontal Model Steam Boiler Pm ResearchLive Steam Train Winton Steam EngineHo Bachmann Spectrum 82301 Unlettered Baldwin 4-6-0 Steam Locomotive Low BoilerK-line By Lionel Trains Reading Pennsylvania Diecast Smoking Steam Engine SetLionel O Scale 221steam Locomotive G Gauge Lgb St&t #22 Shay Steam Locomotive Custom Weathered W/ Dcc & SoundAmerican Flyer 21005 0-6-0 Steam Locomotive S-gaugeLionel O No.6-28018 Die-cast Reading 4-6-0 Camelback Steam Engine In BoxAhm Rivarossi Trains New, 0-8-0 Steam Switcher Engine Set, Indiana Harbor Belt G 1:20.3 45mm Gypsy Class Steam Locomotive BearLionel 763e Lionel Lines Semi-scale Hudson Steam LocomotiveBachmann Ho Shay Steam Locomotive, B2Vintage Lionel 681 Steam Turbine Engine Ex €Ihc Hobby Corp. Ho Gauge 2-8-2 N.y.o.&w. Steam Engine And Tender SetMarx -working Motor For # 1829 & 333 Steam EngineRivarossi Ho Scale Union Pacific Up Big Boy 4005 4-8-8-4 Locomotive Steam EngineLionel Postwar 736 2-8-4 Berkshire Steam LocomotiveAmerican Flyer S Gauge 0-6-0 Steam Engine & Coal Car 21004Ken Kidder Scale Brass Steam Dummy 0-4-0 C-7Fleischmann Db 55 Class Steam Loco With Sound Ho Scale Suit Roco Lima Brawa TrixHo Brass Y6b Key Imports N&w 2-8-8-2 Steam Locomotive And Tender, Ho ScaleBachmann Ho Gs-4 4-8-4 Steam Locomotive, Southern Pacific, DccMantua Ho Great Northern 4-4-2 Atlantic Steam Engine Locomotive W/ Tender 1701 Lionel 203 Steam 0-6-0, 40-42,to Restore Or Fot PartsFleischmann Drg Br56 Class Photo Grey Steam Loco Ho Scale Roco Lima Brawa TrixHo Brass Y6b Key Imports N&w 2-8-8-2 Steam Locomotive And Tender, Ho ScaleHo 1:87 Rivarossi~norfolk & Western 2-8-8-2 Mallet Articulated Steam LocomotiveMarklin Ho No.3047 3 Rail Ac 2-10-0 Heavy Goods Steam LocomotiveLionel 224e Die Cast Steam Loco & 2224w Whistle Tender, Excl & Runs Fine