For people who are not involved in the hobby of model railroading, there is really no difference between “toy” trains and “model” trains. After all, both hobbies involve small trains controlled by some sort of power supply. There is a significant difference, however, for anyone who is an enthusiast. Calling a model railway a “toy train” is like calling a “novel” a classic piece of literature.
Toy trains are generally marketing to kids and are how many of us were introduced to the hobby. They tend to be pretty basic and not based on real-life trains. Model trains, on the other hand, are often a true art form with scale reproductions of actual or potential trains and layouts (a technique known as prototyping).
Some of the earliest toy trains were available in the early 19th century. They often had hand-wound engines or even steam locomotives and were generally made of cast iron.
In the 1850s, a German company named Marklin, which made accessories for dollhouses, introduced a train and track casket to try to broaden its market to include boys and girls. They also made extra tracks, rolling stock and buildings available as accessories.
Electric trains soon followed, commonly believed to have been introduced by Carlisle and Finch in 1897 in the United States. The Lionel company revolutionized these models, and they quickly gained popularity and sophistication.
Things like lighting, the ability to change direction, and “real” smoke were some of the first added realism features. There was still little distinction between “toy” and “model” trains until the 1950s, however, when the modern emphasis on realism really began to take hold.
Today, there are various model railway gauges, with a wide range of accessories available. They can be controlled by a computer and entire railway yards can be managed exactly as they would be in real life. Many model railroad enthusiasts spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours prototyping real railroad lines, both past and present.
There are clubs and associations that offer resources for both novice and experienced railway workers. The internet has also helped make it easier to find information on model trains, as well as a much larger selection of trains and accessories than the average hobby shop could hope to stock.
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