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    

1960s Tin Japan R/c Space Rocket Man Robot Exc Works!!!Horikawa Apollo 2000 Robot 1969 Tin Japanese Vintage Rare Wow!!!Horikawa Sh Japan Battery Operated Fighting Spaceman Robot With Box Excellent!!!Zoomer Toy Robot Vintage Nomura 1950's Space60s Unique Taiyo Giant 15" Tin Bat/op Blink-a-gear Space Robot Japan Working Piston Action Robot, A.k.a, "pug Robby", Nomura 1957 Japan, Vintage Tin RobotVintage Zoomer Robot Original Dark Green Face Made In Japan 1950s.nomuraMcbess - The Half Mermaid Kidrobot Resin Statue Kid Robot Dunny Kaws Figure ToyRare See Through Take Apart Robot Lincoln Internation Made In Hong Kong 1960's Vintage 1976 Mattel Shogun Warriors 24" Mazinga Figure Box CompletePopy Dx Daidenjin Sentai Robot Japan Chogokin Transformer GodaikinLego Collector Series Lot 15 Minifigs + Small Black Stands. Cheerleader, RobotNomura Japan Zoomer Robot Tin Toy Battery Operated 1950's,excellent! Iron Giant Ultimate Robot Doll Figure Set Warner Brothers Trendmasters 22"Vintage G1 Transformers Lot Dinobots Autobots Minibots Weapons RobotsUniversal Monsters-trendmasters-forbidden Planet-robby The Robot-remote ControlVintage Shogun Warriors Jumbo Mazinga 24 Inch Japanese Robot Figure In Box12-15lb Combat Robot Chassis Kit - Offset Bar /blade Spinner - 9.6v Dc Motor RcVintage 1950s Mr. Mercury Robot By Marx Toys Japan Tin Battery-op For RepairThreea 3aa Mongrol 1/6 Black Hole Variant 3a Ashley Wood Abc Warrior Tk1960s Colonel Hap Hazard Nasa Astronaut Robot By Marx With Box Works1966 Remco Lost In Space Robot Blue & Red Battery-op With Original InstructionsLego Mindstorms Ev3 Robot Lot; New Intelligent Brick, Sensors, Technic Pieces...Vex Edr Educational Robotics 276-2750 Programming Control Starter KitSoul Of Chogokin Gx-04 Grandizer Set Bandai Japan Diecast RobotTin Robot Driver Figure - Japan - 1950's - Vintage Space Characters!Toy Stamp & Battery Op Tin Gear Robot 11 1/4 In TallVintage Attacking Robot Horikawa S.h Made In Japan 1960s.original Box Only.Devilman Tin Toy Billiken Shokai Made In Japan Devil Man Bullmark Popy ChogokinTransformer Takasa Tony Masterpiece Mp20 Wheeljack Anti-hypnosis K.o VersionVery Rare Super Kun Astro Boy Super Hero 1950s Space Robot Tin Toy Made In JapanSoul Of Chogokin Gx-06 Getter Robo Set Bandai Japan Diecast RobotVintage 1950's Original Strenco Robot St1 Tin Wind Up Toy W/ Box GermanyVintage 1954 Ideal Toys 'robert The Robot' 1st.version Toy With Tools And Box!Tn Japan Tin Robot Or Space ManUltimate Wall-e 16" Disney Robot By Thinkway Toys Works Missing Remote ControlVintage Marx Mr Mercury Tin Robot Battery Operated Space Toy 1950s Remote Works!Classic Mego 1970 12" Lunar Spaceman Robot Wi Original Box Rotate-o-matic JapanRare Robotank-z Made By T.n Nomura Japan Tin Robot Needs Some TlcHorikawa Rotate - O - Matic Super Astronaut 1960s WorkingTransformers Vintage G1 Devastator Lot Missing 2 Guns Robot1968 Vintage Japan Noguchi Wind Up Tin Mechanical Mighty Robot~early VersionHorikawa Star Strider Robot 1986 Red Tin Japanese Vintage Rare Wow!!!Vintage Waco Japan Battery Operated The Laughing Robot Rare Version NmibVintage Mr. Galaxy Robot By Junior Toys Factory Japan 1970s.near Mint Works !Bandai Soul Of Chogokin Gx-13 Dancouga Soc Daigokin Transformers Gundam Vintage Godaikin Daltanias Bandai Diecast Robot Y & K ~ No BoxLego Minifig Lot Series,unicorn,jester,bunny,yeti,robot,statue Of Liberty,polyHorikawa - Swivel O Matic Astronaut Space Man Robot Made In Japan Black Gobots Combiner Puzzler Bandai Tonka Robot TransformersVintage 1950s Nomura Radar Robot Tin Toy Battery Operated Remote Space Works!Soul Of Chogokin Gx-40 Godmars Japan Robot DiecastOrbotix S003ap Sphero 2.0 Robot Smart Toy 4.5mph Multicolor Led Clear/whiteMaboroshi Tantei Phantom Detective Tin Toy Billiken Japan Bullmark Popy Gokin1950's Mr Atom Battery Operated Robot Made In Usa Advance Doll & Toy Company 17"Hasbro Transformers Robots In Disguise, Omega Prime Optimus Ultra Magnus AwesomeTransformers Robots In Disguise Ruination Bruticus Combiner Mega Octane Rollbar Lego Mindstorms Nxt (8527) Technic Robotics - 100% Complete And WorkingVintage Yoshiya Ko Sparky Robot Wind Up Tin Toy W/ Box Original 1950'sVintage 1966 Remco Lost In Space Robot For Parts Or Restoration Red & Gray