Toy Robot History
A brief history of toy robots by Darryl aka The Robotnut

While toys were made in Japan before WWII, they were generally simple and poor quality. Before the war Germany was the world's major toy manufacturer, followed by the US. Obviously during the war, virtually all toy manufacturing in Japan and Germany stopped. This almost happened in the US but companies like Marx and Gilbert convinced Washington to allow toys to be made, so a sense of normalcy could remain on the home front. After the war the Marshall Plan or plans were enstated to rebuild European and Japanese industry. Of General MacArthur's many after war duties, industrial rehabilitation of Japan was job one.

The idea was to give Japan all the low profit, high labor, small item manufacturing industries that were no longer attractive in the US. Not to drastically affect US industry, items like cheap cameras, portable radios and toys were suggested for Japan. The US companies that made these items before the war, could now market these imported items and make more profit than if they made them. US toy importers like Marx, Rosco, Cragstan and Mego began selling toys manufactured by Masudaya, Nomura, Daiya, Yoshiya, Yonezawa and Horikawa.

These first Japanese toys were friction or clockwork powered, stamped steel and based on many popular American and German toys from before the war. The Japanese with an almost religious zeal to succeed, quickly began to perfect their designs to compete against each other. To woo the world's largest toy market, the US, these former arms manufacturers soon added unique actions, tin lithography and battery power to their creations. By the mid 50's, Japan won the toy war and emerged as the worlds number one manufacturer, eclipsing the US and Germany.

The first toy robot is believed to be the boxy, yellow, clockwork Robot Lilliput from Japan.. Although many collectors believe this robot to be from the late 1930's, experts are begining to atribute it to the mid 1940's, after the war. The next Japanese robot to make an appearance, was the late 1940's Atomic Robot Man. This second robot's date of birth is definitely known, since it was given out as a promo item at the New York Sci-fi convention in 1950. The box for Atomic Robot Man showed an ironic scene of the robot marching through a decimated city, complete with an atomic mushroom cloud...

While Japanese toys began to appear in the US shortly after the war, most of the first robots were actually American made. The first to show up in the Sears Christmas Book was Ideal's crank operated Robert the Robot in 1954. Soon came, Marvelous Mike, The Robot Dog, Z-Man, Big Max and Marx Electric robot, all American made. Japan was about to unleash its secret weapon, in 1955 battery operated toys began to arrive from Japan.

Batteries were used long before in toys, but this was usually only for lights or noise. The Japanese started to use small battery operated motors to power everything from fuzzy poodles, to army tanks and of course robots. This was fueled by the movie Forbidden Planet, which introduced Robby the Robot in 1956 and by the launch of Sputnik in 57. Robby the Robot is likely the most copied, with a hundred or two variations, many battery operated and Japanese. While none of these "Robby" toys were licensed, all are unmistakable with names like Planet Robot and Mechanized Robot.

Unlike other collectables, toy robots are sometimes difficult to attribute. While a "Made in Japan" robot may have an American company logo or well known Japanese makers mark on it, that still doesn't necessarily tell you who made it. Many manufactured items in Japan were subcontracted out, made by piecework in someone's home or bought from an unknown supplier. To complicate things even more, tin toys from Japan were even made from recycled materials. You only have to open up an old tin toy to find out that the inside may have the printing from a Japanese tuna can or an imported powdered milk can. Rejected tin from a canning plant would be recycled and reprinted on the reverse side to produce a toy robot or spaceship. Though it is unlikely that larger toys were ever made from actual cans.

One of the most prolific makers of Japanese battery operated toys was the Horikawa company who used the trade logo SH . Horikawa sold literally hundreds of different tin robots, rockets and space stations. In fact Horikawa sold so many different robots in the 1950's through 80's that new variations are being found regularly by collectors. While Horikawa is a well known name in Japanese toys, many don't realize that they were a wholesaler and not a manufacturer. Most of their robots, as well as the toys of other famous companies, were actually made by the Metal House company of Tokyo. While virtually all of the well know Japanese robot and space toy sellers of the past no longer exist, Metal House still does. A family business which started before the war, Metal House still makes battery operated tin robots in limited quantities for collectors.

Now where do things stand today ?

The robots of yesterday are actually enjoying a renaissance. Engineers and artists alike consider these surviving robots as important pieces of technology and some as modern art. Collectors, world wide, willingly spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for toy robots that were once thought of as cheap imported junk. It's not unusual for a toy that cost $3.95 forty years ago, to sell for $10,000 , $25,000 or $50,000 today at a Sotheby's or Christie's auction. Also don't let the notion of only a single Japanese toy maker still making classic tin robots discourage you. In recent years, China has become the new home of the robot. Seeing a healthy appetite for all things robotic, shops in China are now churning out these metal marvels in biblical numbers. Today a humble collector can purchase an exact functioning replica of a $5000 or $10,000 vintage robot for $50 to $100. While this may concern many "well healed" collectors, others believe these reincarnated robots will only drum up new interest and bring new blood into the hobby...

Darryl aka The Robotnut (C) August 10 2003

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