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]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Daimos Robot Nacoral Mib Jumbo Machinder Shogun Warriors Chogokin Bandai PopyScarce 1960’s Alps Television Spaceman Tin Toy Tv Robot B/o Original Box JapanVintage Lavender Non Stop Robot Masudaya Japan 1960 Gang Of 51963 Cragstan Yonezawa "talking Robot" Says 4 Things 100% Original, CompleteVintage U Combine Dx Shogun Warriors Combattler Combattra Combatra Japan RobotVintage Japan Nomura Mechanized Robbie Robot Space Man Toy Tn Tin Battery OpRare Moon Man 001 Space Robot B/o With Original Box Ok Toys Hong KongVintage Alps Television Astronaut Tin Toy Robot Battery Operated Made In JapanOriginal 1950's Skk (japan) Battery Operated Tin Man Made Satellite Toy Vintage Rare 1950's Robbie Robby The Robot Yonezwa Astronaut Tin Windup Toy1976 Mattel Shogun Warriors Raydeen Fine+ Clean With Box No Reserve Vintage Made In Japan Tin & Plastic Battery Operated Robot As IsThunder Tin Toy Robot Battery Operated Made In JapanSy Japan 1964 Tin Mechanical Jumping Rocket Robot Fully Working Original BoxIron Giant Ultimate Robot Figure Warner Bros Trendmasters New Never Opened Mip 1981 Vintage Popy Tetsujin 28 Robot Bandai Godaikin Item # 77601 Nib PrestineVintage Shogun Warriors Jumbo Great Mazinga 24 Inch Japanese Robot FigureGodaikin Godsigma Popy Japan Chogokin RobotTransformers Cubex Robots Engineer Huff Old Timer Series 01 Collectible FigureVintage Space Fighting Robot Battery Op. Toy S.h. Horikowa Japan With O/boxVintage 1966 Remco Lost In Space Robot, Working Condition, Style 760Sony Entertainment Robot Aibo Ers-220aVideo Robot Tin/plastic Battery Toy Original Box Horikawa JapanHorikawa Attacking Fighting Martin 1950 Tin Robot Toy Japanese For Repair Rare Vintage Original 1966 Alps Television Spaceman Battery Robot Space JapanSpace Attacker Robot Battery Toy Original Box HorikawaRare Vintage 1970s Yonezawa Mechanic Robot Space Japan With Box Lights Works!!!Scarce 7 ¾” Space Atomic Rocket Ship Tin Friction Robot Toy Modern Toys Japan1950's Yone Sy Japan Wind-up Mego Man Robot - 7" - Scarce1960s Mego/selco (hong Kong) Battery Operated Lunar Spaceman RobotTomy Robot Omnibot Photo Sensor Accessory Japanese Heathkit Mib Rare Wow!!!Transformers G1 Decepticon Powermaster Darkwing 1987 Vintage Misb Robot Toy Vintage Space Robot New Astronaut Shooting Chest B/o Tin Toy Horikowa JapanVintage Space Robot New Astronaut B/o Tin Toy Horikowa Japan With O/boxVoltes V Godaiken Bandai America Vintage Toy RobotVintage Tomy Omnibot 2000 Robot W/ Remote Control 1980's Untested For RepairRare Futuristic Pyro Plastic Space Radar Truck Car Space Vehicle Astronaut ToyRare Prototype Japan Robot Tomy Omnibot Design58 Lego Minifigures Lot - Lego Movie, Amc Robot, Toys R Us, Police, Space1997/1998(?) Voltron Metal 12" Lion Robot Transformer Figure. Near Complete.Toynami Masterpiece Beta Red Mospeada Robotech Diecast RobotTakatoku Macross Destroid Monster Diecast Robotech Japan Diecast RobotLost In Space Remco B.o. Robot 1966 W/ Works1997 Masudaya Rare "robby The Robot" Talking Figure Battery Operated #326/10001950’s Zoomer The Robot Battery Operated Japanese Toy With Box Rare Vintage Mighty Bear Racecar Tin Friction Robot Toy Cragstan JapanScarce Vintage Modern Toys Tin Space Rocket #9 Robot Friction Toy JapanRotate O Matic Super Astronaut Mib NewPopy Bandai Chogokin Dx Daltanious Daltanias Transformer RobotScarce Space Sparking Gear Robot Windup Toy With Box Horikowa Japan1950’s Tn Nomura Earth Man Robot Tin Wind Up ToyVintage Mego Hiro Japan Wind Up Apollo 2000x Walking Tin Astronaut RobotScarce Futuristic Pyro Plastic Space Ranger X-200 Rocket Spaceship Vehicle ToyDux Astroman Plastic Toy Robot Battery Operated Made In GermanyScarce Space Toy Tin Robot Tractor Nomura Bo Japan No Yonezawa No Reserve ! Scarce Percy Penguin Tin Friction Robot Toy T.n. Nomura Japan With Original BoxVintage Robot For Parts Or Restoration ProjectVintage Unifive Gaiking Jumbo Machinder Shogun Warrior 24"daiku Maryu Uni-five1950's Marx Tin Litho Space Port Playset Base Rockets Planets Spaceman Mr Mercury Tin Robot Yonezawa Made In Japan