The 1950s was a particularly good decade to be a toy robot. The world was going through something of an awakening, as both the horrors and marvels of technology were revealed. Along with the shock of the first nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the looming Space Race inspired hope for the wild possibilities of humans traveling and living among the stars.
Naturally, science and technology—and in particular that related to space travel—became a fascination. The impact of radiation and fallout lead to many sci-fi and horror films about space invaders and mutants running rampant, like "Godzilla" in Japan and "The Blob" in America. In other films, like 1951's "The Day the Earth Stood Still," sentient robots served as allegories for the dangers of modern technology.
In America and Europe, the depiction of robots always had a threatening undertone. In fact, the word "robot" comes from Czech playwright Karel Capek's 1920 play, "R.U.R." or "Ros...
Beginning in 1940, Isaac Asimov published a series of magazine short stories about a robot developing paternal feelings for a child it was charged with protecting. These tales, and their moral code known as the "Three Laws of Robotics," increased the emerging Western intrigue with robots and were eventually published in 1950 as the science-fiction book, "I, Robot." The robot frenzy was further fueled by popular characters such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.
Despite this Western preoccupation with robots, most of the collectible tin toy robots of the 1950s, also known as "mecha," come from Japan. In Japanese culture, robots are usually beloved companions that pose no threat, even when given human emotions and free will. This tradition goes back to the Edo period, when a craftsman named Hisashige Tanaka, who lived from 1799 to 1881, made karakuri dolls, which were early automatons that moved through spring action. They could serve tea, shoot arrows, and even write.
While "windup" or "clockwork" tin toys were mostly made in Germany starting around the end of the 19th century, Japan took to this malleable metal and eventually developed highly sophisticated tin printing and punching machines. Selling cheaper and simpler versions of German toys, Japan was able to capture an even bigger share of the tin-toy market.
German and Japanese production of these toys halted during World War II, as metals and factories were devoted to the war effort. Shortly after the war, though, with Japan under American occupation, its factories began producing tin model cars, trains, and other windup toys again. Under General MacArthur, the U.S. encouraged low-profit, high-labor industries such as toy making in Japan.
Lilliput, a square yellow robot made in Japan, is widely considered the first tin toy robot, made in 1938. Following Lilliput, the next toy robot made in Japan was Atomic Robot Man, created in 1949 and given out at sci-fi convention in New York in 1950. The box showed the robot stomping through nuclear-bomb ravaged city, a mushroom cloud in the background.
Even though the Japanese had lived through Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their robots usually weren’t evil. Instead, these machine beings, which were unaffected by radiation clouds, became the ultimate helpers. The Japanese held onto a belief that human exploitation, and not technology itself, was where the true evil lay.
Determined to surpass America and Germany in the toy market, Japanese toy makers worked on perfecting their designs, giving their toy robots unique actions and attractive lithography. Soon they incorporated battery-powered features like spinning wheels and rolling treadmills. Often Japanese tin toys were made from rejected tin produced for canning plants, which is why the insides of some toys are printed with tuna or powdered-milk labels.
One of the earliest and most well-known Japanese toy robot brands of the postwar era is the wholesaler Horikawa, which offered hundreds of different robots and rockets. Horikawa got most of its robots from Metal House of Tokyo, a company that still makes battery-operated tin robots for collectors. Before long, Japan was dominating the world toy-robot market, as U.S. importers like Marx, Rosko, Cragstan, and Mego were selling robots offered by Masudaya, Nomura, Daiya, Yoshiya, Yonezawa, and Horikawa. In 1963, tin toys accounted for 60 percent of Japan's toy exports.
Even though 1950s and '60s Japanese-made toy robots are highly collectible, American factories were churning out robots as well. In 1954, Ideal Toy Corporation introduced remote-control Robert the Robot, who had light-up eyes, swinging arms, and the ability to walk and talk. After Robert, Marvelous Mike, The Robot Dog, Z-Man, Marx Electric Robot, and Big Max hit the scene. However, it was the Japanese, who, in 1955, introduced the first battery powered robot.
The most popular Japanese robot character Testuwan Atomu, known as Mighty Atom or Astro Boy in English, who was created by Ozamu Tezuka in 1951 as a manga character. Astro Boy promised a brighter future with his atomic-powered body, laser fingertips, and searchlight eyes—his strong moral compass drove him to use his superhero-like powers to save humans and robots alike.
While the Astro Boy character was child-sized, the other robot protectors coming out of 1950s Japanese manga were giants, even if their toy counterparts were only 8 inches tall. Tetsujin 28, known as Gigantor in the U.S., was three stories tall, but it was controlled entirely by a little boy, who was fighting for peace. Gigantor paved the way for the "giant robot" phenomenon including the "Gundam" anime series of the late '70s and early '80s and, eventually, the "Transformers."
In 1999, Sony made another major innovation in toy-robot history when it introded AIBO, a pricey artificial-intelligence machine that behaved like a pet dog. AIBO was only produced for a limited time, but tin robots are still produced today.
Interviews & Articles
As a kid, I played with lots of robot toys, like Gobots and Transformers. Of course, robots are up there in the pantheon of pop cu… [more]
Today, in 1911, German activist Clara Zetkin launched the first ever International Women’s Day, to honor the political, economic, … [more]
Everyone is always looking for the next big thing. In the 1960s, it was going into space. In the '40s and '50s, the frontier was t… [more]
In honor of the new decade, our friends over at Brain Pickings have put together a delightful collection of vintage images and vid… [more]
In our interview with Justin Pinchot, we didn't have room for a couple of facts and photos: The original Robot Lilliput box (… [more]