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 Tin Space Battery Robot Flying Saucer Toy Japan Rocket Ship Gun TankCragstan Ranger Robot Extremely Rare In Box1960s Tin Japan Cragstan Astronaut Robot Nm In Box!! Cragstan Talking RobotRare Hiro Japan Tin Plastic Wind-up Sparking Super Robot In Box Space Tinplate !Rare Popy Jumbo Machinder Sun Vulcan 24 Inch Shogun Godaikin Bullmark 141Transformers Masterpiece - Takara Mp-10 Convoy Optimus Prime - With Coin & BaseNeat 1950s Marx Toys Battery Operated Mr Mercury In Original Box - Not WorkingYonezawa - Mechanic Robot Japan With Original Box Prototype / ColorsampleHong Kong - Zero Of Space Robot With Original Box + Inserts !Big Loo Moon Robot 1963 With Rare AccesoriesTransformers Masterpiece - Tru Exclusive Mp-03 Grimlock - Free Shipping MispVintage Masudaya Tin Japan Space Robot Moon Explorer Battery Rocket Car Toy Box1960s Tin Japan Space Conqueror Robot Spaceman Exc In Box!!Transformers Masterpiece - Tru Exclusive Mp-02 Soundwave - Free Shipping MispCragstan Radical RobotNib Lego Mindstorms Ev3 Robot Japanese 1957 Yonezawa Tin Toy Space Directional Robot Working + Near Mint Look!1984 Takara Diaclone Finnish Issue Auto Robot Fire Truck W/ Box Finland InfernoLego Mindstorms 8527 Robot Nxt In Box With InstructionsVintage Tetsujin 28 Popy Godaiken Super Robot Jumbo Machinder Shogun 1980 1981Super Rare 1950's Nomura Spaceman Toy Robot - Complete And Working Well!Sony Aibo Ers-31l Pug Robot DogVintage Tin Metal Space Robot Toy Made In Japan On BatteryZoomer Puppy Zuppies Purple Lilac Robot DogAlps - Television Spaceman Robot Japan Transformers Masterpiece - Walmart Exclusive Skywarp - Free Shipping MispTransformers Masterpiece - Tru Exclusive Mp-01 Acid Storm - Free Shipping MispZoomer Dog Robot Dog PetTransformers Masterpiece - Takara Mp-10b Black Convoy Optimus Prime - NemesisDairugger Voltron Vehicle Force Japan Robot Figure Boxed With Box Vintage RareWowwee Robosapien Rs Media Mp3 Dancing RobotVintage Friction 1950's Japan U.s.a.f. V-1 Tin Toy Rocket Space Ship~robotZoomer Dino Boys & Girls Toy 20063696-6022355, 2014, All Ages70's Popy Mattel Jumbo Machinder Great Mazinger Shogun Warriors 24"Shogun Warriors Nessar Action Vehicle Mib Chogokin Die Cast Popy Bandai Complete1960s Tin Japan Fighting Space Man Robot Nm In Box Old Store Stock!!Trendmasters Super Rare 24" 2 Ft Rc Radio Control B-9 Robot Lost In SpaceVintage Lithographed Tin Television Space Robot Battery Operated Alps Japan Nr Kid Robot Futurama Series 1 3" Robot Devil Rare 1/96Daitarn 3 Robot Samurai Motorized No Chogokin Bandai Clover Popy1998 Trendmasters Lion Force Voltron Robot 5 Lion Figure SetVintage Tomy Omnibot 2000 Robot With Box, Manual, Remote Etc..Lego Mindstorms Ev3 (31313) Robotics Set - Mint Condition - No Reserve!!!Goldorak : Jumbo Machinder, Chogokin, Shogun Warrior, Mazinga, Popy, Bandai, Ufo1950`s Asahi Planet Robot Space Patrol Turbine Car Tin ToyTransformers Masterpiece - Tru Exclusive Starscream - Free Shipping MispWowwee Mip Robot BlackVintage 1950s Linemar R-35 Tin Robot With Control Box. No Reserve!!!Vintage Tin Wind Up Robot With Box -- Made In Greece1952 X-2 Toy Rocket Japan Masudaya Tin Friction Outer Space Ship Robot Shuttle Trendmasters Lost In Space Chrome B-9 Robot Mint Boxed Sealed 1997Bullmark Ufo Diapolon Apolon Trang Header Legger Die Cast Metal Dx Bp 23 24 25Cragstan Astronaut Original Tin Toy Robot Box OnlySuper Rare Original Marx Robot, Tin Man Ramp Walker 1960'sCragstan Clear Plastic RobotMego Gigantor The Mighty Robot 17" Bo Robot 1970s, Galaxy Quest? Neat Space ToyVintage Ko Yoshiya Atom Robot Tin Wind Up Friction Toy Space Skirted Robot Japan3d Robotics Iris+ Rc Drone Quadcopter W/ Gimbal Kit And Extra Battery 1982 Voltes V Godaikin Complete Volt In Box Chogokin Popy Bandai