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    

Antique Vintage Brass Stationary Vertical Live Steam Engine Oil Patent ModelSteam EngineN Athearn 11823 Up #4006 4-8-8-4 Big Boy Steam W/ Dcc & Sound Union PacificBrass Williams O Scale Train 5015 Njc #631 4-6-0 3-rail Camelback Steam LocoAccucraft Aml Pennsylvania K-4 4-6-2 Live Steam LocomotiveIves Trains Cast Iron Steam Engine #25 Prewar Wind Up Locomotive Black Silver + N Athearn 11806 Up #3977 4-6-6-4 Challenger Steam W/ Dcc & Sound Union PacificOn30 Scale Bli 909 D&rgw #278 C-16 2-8-0 Steam Locomotive Unlettered Rio GrandeLionel 763e Nyc J1-e Hudson Steam Engine #5344, Item# 18056 W. Tmcc, Rs & BoxN Scale Kato Kato 2-8-2 Heavy Mikado Steam Locomotive & Tender Cn #3803 Gb ArLive Steam Acucraft Locomotive & TenderBrass Orion Models Ho C&o Steam TurbineAmerican Flyer 312 Prr 4-6-2 Steam Engine & Tender & Wrap Lights Up Doesn't RunAster Live Steam Stirling Locomotive, Spanking New, Unfired, Orig. Box & PapersOn30 Scale Bachmann Spectrum 25699 Two Truck Shay Steam Locomotive UnletteredLionel 226/2226wx Steam Locomotive Freight Set W/boxes, O GaugeKemtron Baldwin Locomotive Brass Bell 1-1/2" Scale Live Steam X-1115 Lionel 6-13004 Hiawatha Steam Locomotive & Tender Ln/boxLgb 2080s 2-6-2 Powered Tank Steam Locomotive W/ Sound Ex/boxAjin Driver Wheel Set For Steam Locomotive, 8 Driver Wheels, Brand New!Aster, Made For Fulgurex, French Sncf141r Mikado Live Steam Engine & Tender N/rM.t.h. # 30- 1164 Prr L-1 Mikado Steam Engine W/proto 2 SoundsN Scale - Chesapeake And Ohio C&o - Berkshire 2-8-4 Steam Locomotive - Life LikeMth 20-3157-1 Boston & Albany 4-6-4 J-1e Hudson Steam Loco & Tender W/ps2 Ex/boxWow!! Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 Big Boy Imperial Steam Engine With Proto 2.0Lionel Pocono Berkshire Engine & Tender Lackawanna 6-81025 O Gauge Train 6-81054N Scale Kato Up #2716 2-8-2 Steam Locomotive W/ Dcc Union PacificLionel 1656 0-4-0 Die Cast Steam Switcher With 2403b Bell Ringing Tender, ExclMth 4-6-0 Camelback Jersey Central 30-1141-1 Steam Engine Locomotive O/027 TrainMarx 027 Gauge #36256 Steam Engine Type Electric Train Passenger SetNew Mth Ho 80-3208-1 4-8-8-4 Union Pacific Big Boy #4013 Steam Engine LocomotiveNew! Mth New York Central 4-6-4 Dreyfuss Steam Engine Proto-sound 2.0 20-3045-1American Flyer 313 Large Motor Pacific Steam Locomotive 4-6-2 Very GoodRivarossi 4-8-4 Fef-3 Union Pacific Northern Type Steam Locomotive #841 New Nr!!United Pfm Hon3 Narrow Gauge Sumpter Valley #250 2-6-6-2 Mallet Steam Eng- BoxedAhm Rivarossi Trains Ho Scale 4-8-8-4 Big Boy Steam Locomotive & Tender Exc CondG Gauge Southern #1405 4-6-2 Crescent Limited Steam LocomotiveLionel Post War #675 Steam Engine 2-6-2Sunset Brass Southern Pacific Ac-12 Cab Foward Steam Engine. O Scale 2 Rail. SpLionel 0/027 Gauge #681 Die-cast 6-8-6 Steam Turbine Engine And TenderLionel Hogwarts Express O Gauge Train Set 7-11020 Harry Potter Steam Engine NrSunset Models On3 Brass East Broad Top 2-8-2 Steam Locomotive/tender - WeatheredMb Austin Ho Brass Southern Pacific M-21 2-6-0 Mogul Steam Engine - 1958-61Live Steam LocomotiveMax Gray Ho Southern Pacific Mt-4 4-8-2 Mountain Brass Steam Engine - BoxedBachmann Ho 4-4-0 Old Timer Up Union Pacific Rr American Steam Engine LocomotiveHo Scale Brass Hallmark Santa Fe 2-10-0 2565 Class Steam Locomotive & Oil TenderLionel 221 Gray New York Central Steam Locomotive & 221w Whistle Tender, ExclVintage Brass Model Railroad Steam Engine And Tender Marked K-28 Hon3 D&rgw ?Ho Rivarossi 4-8-8-4 Steam Engine Locomotive UsedLionel 736 Berkshire Steam Loco & 736w Tender, Excl, Runs Great, No Reserve!Custom Brass/ktm Ho Brass Santa Fe 1800 Prairie 2-6-2 Steam Engine - BoxedBachmann Ho Southern Pacific Sp 4-8-4 Daylight Gs4 Steam Engine Locomotive SmokeLionel Polar Express Steam Engine & Tender 0-8-0 New O Gauge 6-30184Mantua Ho Santa Fe At&sf Steam Train Engine Locomotive 4-6-2 Pacific Heavy DiecaLionel Lionchief Pennsylvania Broadway Limited Steam Locomotive No ReserveUnpainted Steam Engine,282,2-8-2,ho Scale,brass Parts,parts/repair,no ReserveWow!! Union Pacific 4-6-6-4 Challenger Steam Engine With Proto 2.0New! Mth Chesapeake & Ohio Die Cast 2-6-6-6 H-8 Steam Engine & TenderLionel 224e Steam Locomotive, 656 Stock Car & 257t Tender (3)