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.

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