In the years following World War II, particularly the late ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s, toys in America realized the same resurgence of energy as the country they occupied.
Prewar mainstays like trains, vehicles, guns, and western toys carried over into the postwar era with better-quality products and great design features. The postwar era also saw an ever-increasing production of toy aircraft due to the public’s enormous fascination with the concept of flight.
But hidden between all these great and popular toys on shelves were mechanical humanoid-like toys of esoteric nature called robots. In the early days only a few toy robots were displayed on store shelves across the country. In the late ’40s and ’50s they were produced in short runs of approximately 100-500 pieces. By the ’60s they were produced in the thousands.
The term “robot” was first introduced to the public by Czech writer Karel ?apek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), published in 1920. The story begins in a factory that makes artificial people called “robots,” but they closely resemble androids, creatures that can be mistaken for humans. They have the ability to think for themselves, though they appear happy to serve. The issue at hand is whether or not the robots are being exploited and the consequences of their treatment.
It should be noted that ?apek himself did not coin the word. According to a short letter he wrote in reference to an etymology in the Oxford English Dictionary his brother, painter and writer Josef ?apek, is its actual originator. Legendary science fiction writer Isaac Asimov has often been credited for coining the term “robotics.”
The concept of toy robots as we know them today materialized in Japan just after World War II. The future was on the minds of Japanese toy makers, as they looked to capitalize on the idea of the future, and produce a whimsical toy that would appeal to both boys and girls.
Such a toy became a reality when Japanese toy maker KT produced a small, six-inch-tall orange robot named “Lilliput Robot,” widely considered by many collectors as the first toy robot, though there is still dispute as to the date Lilliput was produced. Some say it was just after World War II, while others argue Lilliput was made as early as 1939.
In any event, Lilliput started the boom of toy robot production from Japan. While robots were produced in the U.S. and other parts of the world, a solid portion of the robots made during the golden age of robot production (1949-1965) were of Japanese origin.
Thanks to Japanese toy makers competing for the American market, new and better innovations appeared. Robots started using battery-operated motors with lights, sounds, actions, and other complexities. Soon, Japan became the leader in U.S. toy consumption.
The motors and frames of Japanese toy robots were delivered to one home for assembly, while other components were assembled at other locations before finally all coming together at the factory where final assembly, touch-up, and packaging took place before release.
This rather unique system of robot production led to robots from different manufacturers looking like one another, sharing the same parts, or appearing on the Japanese market for local consumption only differing from U.S. models in color or lithograph pattern.
By the late ’60s fantasy gave way to real-life space travel, with robots and space toys resembling the spacecraft of the Apollo program. Not long after, classic toy robot production came to an end. While toy robots have enjoyed some resurgences over the years, (R2-D2 from Star Wars, Iron Giant, and Disney’s Wall-E as examples) classic toy robots are a thing of the past, today replaced by real-life robots made by Honda and Sony.
But classic toy robots are certainly not forgotten. These one-time anomalies are today some of the most popularly collected and best selling toys from the early postwar era, particularly tin robots. Tin robots are one of the kings at auction houses, with average sales of each robot in the thousands (some even in the tens of thousands or more).
In fact, toy robots were the very first postwar toys to be taken on by a major auction house. In 1996 Sotheby’s featured the tin robot collection of Matt Wyse. One of the highlights of the auction was Japanese toy maker Masudaya’s “Machine Man” from the 1950s. This 15-inch, battery-operated robot is the rarest of Masudaya’s “gang of five” series, selling for an astounding $42,550.
“Today, toy robots from the classic era elicit different emotions from different people — some baby boomers collect them for nostalgia, while other younger collectors collect because these items have transcended their original use as toys, and have become art and sculpture,” says Justin Pinchot, one of the leading experts on toy robots.
“These charming automatons of a bygone era remove us from the ‘future shock’ of the real 21st century—from Blackberries and iPods, corporate dominance and world financial melt-downs,” he adds.
There’s no question these classic toy robots are great reminders of what we thought the future might be, a time when the future was once thought of as innocent and exciting.
If you’re an avid collector, or just interested in toy robots and would like to chat about them, visit www.danefield.com, home of one of the leading chat boards on toy robots.
Justin Pinchot is a Los Angeles resident and lifelong toy collector/dealer specializing in robots, ray guns and space toys from the classic era. He owns and operates www.toyraygun.com, a meeting place for those seeking information on robots, ray guns and space toys. The site also has a trading section with vintage robots, ray guns and space toys for sale.
Justin has consulted on vintage toys for Antiques Roadshow, and writes for several publications on the subject of space toys. Justin is always happy to discuss any of these items, and can be contacted directly through his Web site.
Justin Moen is a collector of 1:18-scale die-cast cars, 1:16-scale die-cast farm tractors, and Hot Wheels. He has edited more than 25 titles for Krause Publications.
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