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]

Toyraygun.com

Toyraygun.com

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]



Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage 1960s Marx Great Garloo Battery Remote Robot W Box Toy Works MonsterVery Rare Japan Tv Space Patrol With Box Friction Tin Car Robot1950s B/o Tin Radar Robot-scarce-works-nice-japan-no Res. Rare Antique Large Tin Toy B/o Space Scout Ship Car S-17 Yanoman Japan RobotThe Great Son Of Garloo Marx Tin Vintage Monster 1960's Nr Rare Pioneer 3 Stage Rocket Tin Space Ship Robot Toy Original Box Kraemer JapanLtd Toy Stamp & 1950s Ideal 30" Battery-operated King Zor In BoxRare 1/4 Hot Toys Terminator Endoskeleton Boxed Figure Works No Reserve Look!Ideal Monster Lab Near Mint And Fully Operational!!Super Rare Vintage Red China Tin Ultra Man Trike Tricycle Clockwork Space ToyGodaikin Daltanias Die Cast Buildable ActionfigureOriginal 1940's Atomic Robot Man-excellant Condition -japan- Wind Up With Box Transformers G1 Weapons Lot Robots For Part/repair 80s Marx Great Garloo NmibVintage 1950s Tin W/u Mechanical Walking Robot-good Cond-works-no/res-japanVintage Marukai 1978 Bullmark Toys #43748 Mekanda Robo Shogun Diecast Toy W/boxRare Gigantor Tetsujin-28 No. 3 Robot Osaka Tin Toy Institute Key Wind Japan NibVintage Bandai Popy Godaikin Daltanious Daltanias Godsphinx Japan Robot Part Lot1963 Marx "big Loo" Friend From The Moon Operated Robot Vintage Rare ToyBandai - Godaikin Bio Man Mint Condition - 1984 - Item - #300021Ko / Yoshiya - Space Tank Robby The Robot V-2Rare Heathkit Hero 2000 Base Mr Atom The Electronic Walking Robot W/box Advanced Doll & Toy Co Battery OpMattel Shogun Warriors The Great Mazinga Bop Bag 1977Godaikin Goggle V 1980's 1982 Bandai Toy Diecast RobotOrbotix 1b01 Ollie App Controlled Robot White New SealedStunning Bright Clean Remco Lost In Space Robot 1960's Check Out!!Vex V.5 Robotics Design System Kit & Programmers KitVintage Tinplate Japan N Nomura ? Clockwork Space RobotVintage Tinplate Japan Sy Clockwork Space RobotCitadel Games Workshop Warhammer 40k Rogue Trader Era Robot Vintage Metal OopCragstan Yonezawa Mr Robot 1960 Excellent + Working Cond Japan Battery OpperatedVintage Marukai 1978 Bullmark Toys #43745 Space Ship #1 Die Cast Toy Mint W/boxLego Collectible Minifigure 17 Fig Lot Multiple Series Crash Test Robot Series 11950's Nomura Lighted Piston Tractor Japan B/o O/box No Yonezawa/space Toy/robotHuge Lot Macross Gobots Convertors Rock Lords Transistor Robots RaritiesRare Vtg 1960s Mechanical Man Wind Up Toy Robot Sy Japan Nmib Box YoneyaHorikawa Japan Apollo 2000 Robot Tin Toy Vintage Vintage 1980s Japanese Coca-cola Transformer Robot Toy Coke Can - G1 JapanIron Giant 20" Ultimate Robot - Trendmasters - Very Rare, Box Rough- No Rsrv!Bullmark 9in Legger Ufo Warrior Dai Apolon Apollon Vinyl Figure Complete PopyTv Television Metal/steel/tin Robot Japan Vintage From Godaikin Collector Ollie By Sphero 2014 App-controlled Robot Boys & Girls Ages 8+Steampunk Robot Figure? Vintage Metal Jointed Bucherer/saba Doll - 1920'sAffinity Robots Artifact Mtg Modern Deck - Gp Version! -no Reserve- Bullmark Trangu Ufo Warrior Daiapolon Apollon 9in Vinyl Figure Complete Popy Japan Tin Toy Windup Robby The Robot Vintage 1960's With Rubber HandsCitadel Games Workshop Warhammer 40k Rogue Trader Era Robot Vintage Metal OopFuturama Tineez Set Of 3 Bender Robot Devil & Zoidberg Popy Chogokin Gb-36 Beast King Golion Voltron LionbotNew (nrfb) Mego The Black Hole Action Figure "sentry Robot" With GunRobot Commando Ideal Battery ToyTransformers 2015 Combiner Wars Motormaster Hasbro Mib Wowwee Mip Rc Robot Assistant 0821/0825Vintage 1950s Nabisco Cereal Premium Turquoise & Grey Space Robot Ramp Walker1960's Space , Robot Art Japan Menko Cards Vintage Japanese Retro Old Toy LotZoomer Interactive Robot Dog Dalmatian Your Real Best Friend New Toy Dog NewVintage Marukai 1978 Takatoku Toys #43494 Diecast Airship Spacecraft Toy MibGodaikinLiveman Retro Dx Super Robot Liverobo Super Sentai Megazord Power Rangers