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 "Rossum's Universal Robots," wherein humanoid machines designed to toil in a factory are given emotions and turn violent, destroying humankind. This Western fear of human-made life goes as far back as Mary Shelley's early 19th-century story about Dr. Frankenstein's monster, and those same philosophical conflicts were grappled with again in Fritz Lang's classic 1926 film "Metropolis," about an intelligent robot called Maria.

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 A...

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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Attic of Astounding Artifacts

Attic of Astounding Artifacts

Danger... warning! This small but lethal site by 'Doc Atomic' showcases an excellent collection of out-of-this-worl… [read review or visit site]

One of the most comprehensive vintage toy raygun reference sites, with lots of detailed descriptions and great phot… [read review or visit site]

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Robot Robby Moon Robot - Original Box - Yonezawa - JapanDx Chogokin Voltes V Diecast Vintage Popy Robot JapanMeccano Meccanoid G15 Ks Personal Robot Building Set With Bonus Carrying CaseRare All Original 1950's Space Man Robot Yonezawa (japan) C9 Vintage Tin Toy Masudaya Giant Sonic Robot 1950 Made In Japan Original Rare Sony AiboVtg Target Robot B/op Masudaya, 5 Of The Giant Robots.japan. Circa 1950sHaji Rare Space Trooper Space Man Robot 1950's Clockwork Very Good ShapeRare All Original 1950's Cone Head Robot Yonezawa (japan) C9 Rare 60's Working Cragstan Daiya Tin Blue Robot Astronaut S-5 Litho JapanDaiya Tin Robot U5 Battery Operated Japan 60s Top Condition Voltes V Volt-in-box Mib By Popy Not Bullmark Takatoku Lego Mindstorms Ev3 31313, Kids Robot Building ToyRare Blue Smoking Robot Yonezawa Japan Circa 1960 With BoxVintage Great Mazinga Shogun Warrior MattelGodaikin Dx Sun Vulcan Sentai Robot Japan Popy DiecastPopy Dx Chogokin Godaikin Dynaman Bandai Sentai Takatoku Bullmark Power Ranger!!Vintage 12 Inch S.h. Horikawa Space Patrol Robot Tin W/original Box Battery OperMega Rare 50s Nomura M-101 Pink Tin Space Tank W/ Helicopter Japan Robot VintagePopy Dx Chogokin Godaikin Gardian Takatoku Bullmark New In Box Complete Rare!!!Old Nomura Japan Battery Operated Tin Walking Mechanical Radar Robot Space ToyVintage Daimos Shogun WarriorStar Wars Sphero Bb-8 App Controlled RobotWowwee Mip Robot Brand New Never Opened WhiteHot Toy Meccano Meccanoid G15 Robot Personal Toy Building Kit Voice Recognition Lego Mindstorms Nxt 2.0 #8547 Programmable Robot Set- OpenedModern Toys Tin Space Lunar Transporter Battery Operated 60s Japan Top ConditionBrand New Zoomer Your Best Friend Robot Dog Puppy ~spin Master~ Vintage Tin Moon Flight Carousel *'made In West Germany 50s Top Condition (videoStar Wars R2-d2 Voice Activated Interactive Robot Droid Rolling Figure Lego Mindstorms The Ev3 31313 Robot Toy Rare Early 50s Universe Traveller Masudaya Japan Space Robot Vintage BoxedRare Red Vintage 50's/60's Horikawa Sh Swivel/rotate O Matic Astronaut Robot Transformers G1 Autobot Warrior Sunstreaker Original Box 1984 Hasbro Gen 1 RobotVintage Ideal Robot Commando Voice Controlled Daiya Tin Space Captain Battery Operated 60s Japan Top Condition Bandai Godaikin Gardian Tetsujin Daikengo Voltes Trider Daitarn - 99% CompleteVery Rare Cragstan's Mr. Robot With Original Box! $1 Start Bid And No Reserve!Hot Toy Zoomer Kitty Interactive Cat Toy Robot Pet Pink Girls Kids Play Cuddle Hasbro Transformers Masterpiece: Starscream Robots Action FigurePopy Dx Chogokin Godaikin Laserion Bandai Takatoku Bullmark New In Box Rare!!!!!Zoomer Kitty Bella Toy Interactive Pet Robot New In Box- PinkVintage Japanese Horikawa Robot Toy Battery Operated Tin Toy 1960's Zoomer Dalmation, Interactive Robot Dog Puppy, Christmas Gift, Great Condition!Tin Antique Toy Walking Robot Wind Up Tn Japan 1950'sMechanized Robby Robot W/box 1950sNomura Mechanized Robby The Robot 1950's Forbidden Planet BlackPopy Dx Chogokin Godaikin Juspion Gabin Tank Bandai Takatoku New In Box Rare!!!Shogun Warriors Gaiking Chogokin Godaikin Popy PoppyPopy Dx Chogokin Godaikin Multiform Jiban Takatoku Bullmark Bandai New Rare!!!!!Zoomer Dino, 'jester' Interactive Dinosaur Robot Vintage 70s 80s Sh Horikawa Smoking Engine Robot + Box Piston Space Japan WorksTransformers G1 Autobot Spy Mirage Original Box 1984 Hasbro Gen 1 RobotRemco Lost In Space B-9 Robot Rare All Black Nmib!!Zoomer - Kitty Interactive Cat Robot - BlackVintage Raydeen Shogun WarriorZoomer Zoomie Girl Robotic Dog Toy Interactive Robot- New With No BoxBandai Flashman Flash King Dx Gc-34 Flashinbox Choushinsei Flashman Sentai MibBrand New Zoomer Robot Dino Femisapien Electronic Robot Wowwee Female Girls Robosapien Wowee 2008