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]

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    

Roundhouse Darjeeling Live Steam LocomotiveLionel # 746 Norfolk & Western Steam Loco 746w Tender Long Stripe (dakotapaul)Vintage Prewar American Flyer O Gauge No.1681 Hudson 2-6-4 Steam Engine & Tender Pre War Lionel 384e Steam Engine & Tender Standard Gauge - Tested & Works GreatEarly Bing Live Steam Locomotive O Gauge 0/35 Single Horizontal Cylinder VintageAster Live Steam G Gauge Climax Locomotive KitHo Scale Brass Alco Models Pennsylvania Rr K4s 4-6-2 Steam LocomotiveCustom Nj Brass St-274-0 O Scale Little River Rr 2-4-4-2 Steam Loco /tender - 2-Bachmann Spectrum Climax Steam Locomotive (unlettered)Lionel Pre-war Prewar Standard Gauge No. 385e 2-4-2 Steam LocomotiveWestside Model Co. Kmt Southern Pacific Gs-3 4-8-4 Brass Steam Locomotive & TendAster Live Steam G Gauge C&s 2-6-0 Locomotive KitPostwar Lionel 736 Berkshire Steam Loco & 2046w Tender, C-7 Ex, Runs Great, No RIron Horse/baldwin Locomotive Works M&p 2-8-0 Brass Steam Loco & Tender/boxScarce Postwar Lionel 1882 "halloween" General Steam Locomotive & 1882t TenderMax Gray O Scale Brass Penn. D-16s 4-4-0 Steam Locomotive & Tender 2-rail/boxWestside Models Brass Ho Scale Southern Pacific S-2 Sp 0-6-0t Steam LocomotivePerfection Scale Models/max Gray Brass Sp 2-6-0 Steam Locomotive- 2-rail/boxHo Brass At&sf Steam Locomotive W/tender #4070 Please Look At Pics&read CommentsHo Lionel "4-8-4 American Freedom 4449" Steam Locomitive & Tender.Ho Scale Brass Nj Custom Pennsylvania Rr K-4s 4-6-2 Steam Locomotive TrainLionel Trains Rare Turbine Steam Engine Smoke Sounds Tmcc Tender Set Postwar TpLionel 8315 B&o 4-4-0 General Steam Locomotive Engine & Tender 1983-84 C-7 ExHo Bachmann Spectrum 81608 L&n #408 Usra Light 4-8-2 Mountain Steam Locomotive Ho Scale Brass Westside Model Co Pennsylvania Rr N-1s 2-10-2 Steam LocomotivePrewar American Flyer Die Cast O Scale 4-4-2 Steam Loco With Tender, C-7 Ex+Proto 2000 Heritage Steam Collection Ho 23341 Prr #376 2-8-8-2 Loco And TenderHo Scale Rivarossi 0-8-0 Steam Engine #102 W/indiana Harbor Tender Lot T16-166Rare Lionel Postwar726 Big Berkshire Atomic Red Steam Engine 2-8-4 Tender 2426wNorthwest Short Line Ho Brass Minarets Class Alco 2-8-2t Steam Locomotive/boxSouthern Pacific Usra 4-8-2 Steam Engine Tsunami Dcc Sound Decoder Pro WeatheredProto 2000 Heritage Ho 30222 Pennsylvania 0-6-0 Steam Locomotive Prr #7641Ho Scale Brass Westside Model Co Baltimore & Ohio Rr 2-8-2 Steam LocomotiveVintage Post War Lionel No. 736 Berkshire Engine Steam Locomotive W/original BoxVintage American Flyer S Gauge No.312 Ac 4-6-2 Prr Steam Engine W/box & WrapperUnited Models Hon3 Brass Colorado & Southern 2-8-0 Steam Loco & Tender/boxPrecision Scale Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range M-4 Brass Steam Loco In Ob, C-8 Ln+United/pfm Brass Ho Scale Denver & Salt Lake 2-6-6-0 D&sl Steam LocomotiveHo Scale Brass Pacific Fast Mail Pennsylvania Rr 4-8-2 K4 Steam Locomotive TrainBalboa Katsumi Ho Scale Brass 2-10-2 Steam Locomotive & Tender Ln/boxHo Scale Brass Nj Custom New York Central Rr M1 0-10-0 Steam Locomotive TrainLionel Original Box & Liner For The 1950 #773 Hudson 4-6-4 Steam Engine + More Lionel 224/224e Prewar Steam Locomotive In Black, 1938-1941, 2-6-2Northwest Short Line Ho Scale Brass No.6 2-6-2t Eagle Gorge Logging Steam LocoPostwar Lionel 2046 Die Cast Hudson Steam Loco & 2046w Tender, C-7 Ex, Runs FineG Scale - Aristocraft - P.r.r. C-16 2-8-0 Steam Locomotive & Tender #552!Kato N Scale Mikado 2-8-2 Steam Locomotive & Tender Canadian National W Box H712Lionel 6-18058 Nyc 773 4-6-4 Cc Hudson Steam Locomotive & Tender Ln/boxKato N Scale Southern Pacific Gs-4 Steam EngineHo Scale Brass Gem Models Pennsylvania Rr S2 6-8-6 Turbine Steam LocomotivePrr 4 6 2 K-4 Early Steam Engine(brass)............... Sunset Models Ho ScaleArbor Or Bowser 2-8-4 All Metal Steam Engine-work Project Or For Parts-ho ScaleLionel 6-18053 Lionel Century Club 726 Berkshire 2-8-4 Steam & Tender Ln/boxMarx Black Locomotive Train Engine O Guage Vintage Steam Lionel 6-38000 Nyc 4-6-4 Empire State Steam Locomotive & Tender Ln/boxMth 20-3646-1 Pennsylvania 2-8-2 Light Mikado Steam Engine W/ps3.0 Ln/boxAthearn G9205 Genesis Union Pacific 4-8-4 Fef-3 Steam Loco No. 844 W/dcc & SoundVintage Lionel Steam Locomotive Train Engine # 646 With Original BoxLionel 746 N&w Steam Engine & Tender From 1957-60Brass Model Steam Locomotive Hon3