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    

Star Wars Bb-8 Sphero App Enabled Droid Toy Figure Robot Bb8 The Force AwakensStar Wars The Force Awakens Sphero Bb-8 App-enabled Droid, Not Pre-sale, In HandLego Mindstorms Ev3 (31313) Robot SetVintage Shogun Warrior Great Mazinga 24 Inch Plastic Robot Jumbo Machinder Japan1960's Horikawa Japan Tin Fighting Robot Swivel Light Up Mechanical Martian ToyVintage Early 1980's Transformers G1, Gobots, And Random Robot Junk Pile Lot!Popy, Jumbo Machinder, Shogun Warriors, Combattler VStar Wars Bb-8 Sphero App Enabled Droid Toy Figure Robot Bb8 The Force AwakensVintage Shogun Warriors Machinder Raydeen 24" Figure 1970'sVintage 70s Shogun Warriors Jumbo Machinder Diamos 24 Inch Japanese Robot FigureStar Wars Bb-8 Sphero App Enabled Droid Toy Figure Robot Bb8 The Force AwakensNomura - Piston Action Robot Aka Pug Robby Rare Golden Variation Straight Ears !Transformers Dark Of The Moon Ironhide Leader Class Robot Prime Rare Collectable Rare Original Chief Smoky Robot Space Toy Tin Battery Operated Yoshiya Japan Nomura - Space Man Robot JapanRare Louis Marx 1962 Frankenstein Robot Battery Operated No Reserve!Rare 1934 Buck Rogers Space Game 25th Century Robot Lutz & Sheinkman Inc. ToyNew Lego Mindstorms Ev3 31313 Remote Controlled Robots $400Rare Futuristic Space Jeep Car Astronaut Driver Tin Friction Toy Diaya JapanVintage Takara Diaclone Diakron G1 Transformers Voltron Space Robot Parts Lot Rare Tomy Japan Plastic Wind-up Gear Robot 1969 Child Guidance Space Tinplate !Sony Aibo Ers 210 A Interactive Robot Dog With Accssesories & Original Box WorksMint In Box 1977 Ahi Azrak Hamway Lost In Space Robot - Works!Vintage Zoomer Robot By Nomura 1950's ToyDoor Robot Original 1950s Robot Working Excellent Robot OverallTelevision Robot 1950's Made In Japan OriginalStar Wars Bb-8 Sphero App Enabled Droid Toy Figure Robot Bb8 The Force AwakensStar Wars Bb-8 Sphero App Enabled Droid Toy Figure Robot Bb8 The Force AwakensHorikawa Japan Fighting Robot Tin Toy With Gears Battery Operated Space ToyVintage 24" Shogun Warriors Gaiking 1970's With Working Fist And MissilesStar Wars Bb-8 Sphero App Enabled Droid Toy Robot Bb8 The Force Awakens In Hand Ko Venus Robot Series No 5053Vintage Marx - Mr. Mercury Battery-operated RobotTransformers Robots In Disguise 2001 100% Complete Rail Racer CombinerMego Vintage Disney The Black Hole Sentry Robot MocVintage Space Fighter Smoke Robot Battery Op. With O/box Toy Horikawa Sh JapanHuge Vex Robotics Robot Parts Lot Huge Huge Lot!!!!! Look!!!new & Used!Nomura Mechanized Robot Robby Tin Toy Original Japan 1957 Batt Op RareVintage 1985 Tomy Omnibot 2000 Robot - 5405 For Parts Or RepairCragstan's Mr. Robot For Repair Or PartsLego Mindstorms 31313 Ev3 Robotics Robot - 2177Star Wars Bb-8 Sphero App Enabled Droid Toy Figure Robot Bb8 The Force AwakensVintage Lot Of Bandai Popy Shogun Robots Action Figure Die Cast Plastic W/boxesScarce Original Tin & Plastic 1960's Mr. Robot Jr. Bandai Japan Bo C9 Rare Original Robbie The Robot Tin Battery Operated ToyRobot Driven Apps Driving Orbotix Ollie Android Ios Sphero White IosBandai Soul Of Chogokin Mazinger Head Statue Shogun Warrior Jumbo Machinder PopyHorikawa Sh - Super Giant Space Robot Made In Japan With Original Box !! Horikawa Japan Super Space Giant Robot Vintage Tin Toy 1960'sNever Play Vintage 80's 1/55 Takatoku Macross Vf-1j Max Jenius Valkyrie RobotechSphero Bb-8 Starwars App Enabled Droid Toy Figure Robot Bb8 The Force Awakens1970s Shogun Warriors - Jumbo Machinder Raydeen 24" (vintage Toy)Japan Tin Toy Robot Gigantor T-28 Osaka Tin Toy Windup BlackLot Of 4 Mint Tomy Starriors Robots W/ Original Cards & BubblesRare Japan Tin Friction Moon Rocket X-1105 Japanese Tinplate Space Ship Robot !Vintage 1963 Esr Digi Comp 1 Plastic Toy Digital Computer Unopened In BoxTransformers Robots In Disguise Lot Includes Complete Optimus And Ultra MagnusVintage Micronauts Giant Acroyear Space Robot 5 Different Toys In One Mego 1977 Tomland Starroid Raiders Dado Action Figure Space Fighters Toy Alien 1978 RobotWowwee Mip Robot Rc Robot Open Box