History of toy robots

retro toy robotThe first robot toy is recognised as the boxy and yellow clockwork Japanese Robot Lilliput. Although many collectors thinks this robot was made in the late 1930s, experts are starting to atribute it to mid 1940s, after the WWII. The next Japanese toy robot that made an appearance, was the Atomic Robot Man from the late 1940s. The second robot's birth date is undoubtedly known, as it was given as a promotional item at the 1950 New York Sci-fi convention. The box for this Atomic Robot Man depicted an ironic scene of it marching through some decimated city, with the atomic mushroom cloud as a background.

While Japanese robots appeared in the USA shortly after WWII, most of them were actually of American origin. The first to feature in the Sears Christmas Book in 1954 is Ideal's crank operated Robert the Robot. Soon came the Marvelous Mike, Z-Man, The Robot Dog, Big Max and the Marx Electric robot, all of which American made. Japan then unleashed the secret weapon,as in 1955 battery powered toys began arriving from island.

Batteries were utilized long ago in toys, however, this was normal for noise or lights. The Japanese started using small battery powered motors to operated everything from really fuzzy poodles, to and army tanks and robots. That was fueled by a movie called Forbidden Planet, which in 1956 introduced Robby the Robot, and by the launching of Sputnik in 1957. Robby the Robot is probably the most copied, having a hundred or more variations, most Japanese and battery operated. While none of those "Robby" toys were legal, all are unmistakable having names like Mechanized Robot and Planet Robot.

Unlike other collectables, robot toys are something difficult to attribute. Although tge "Made in Japan" toy might have an American company logo and/or well known Japanese logo mark on it, this still does not necessarily reveal who made it. A lot of Japanese manufactured items were subcontracted outwards, made in someone's home by piecework or bought from an anonymous supplier. To further complicate things, tin Japanese toys were made even from recycled materials. You need to only open up a tin toy and find out the inside might have the printing of a Japanese tuna brand or a can of imported powdered milk. Rejected tins from the canning plant would get recycled and reprinted onto the reverse side to make a toy spaceship or robot. Though it is not likely that larger ones were made from recycled cans.

One of the prolific producers of Japanese battery powered toys was the renowned Horikawa company, who used the SH trade logo. Horikawa sold hundreds of different robots, space stations and rockets from tins. In fact Horikawa, made so many different toys in the 1950s through 1980s that unknown variations are regularly being found by collectors. Although Horikawa is a well-known name for Japanese toys, many do not realize they were not a manufacturer but a wholesaler. Most of the robots, combined with the toys of the other famous brands, were in fact made by the Tokyo Metal House company. While virtually all well know Japanese space and robot toy sellers of the past no longer function, Metal House exists. A family business that started before WWII, Metal House continues to make battery powered tin robots in small quantities for dedicated collectors.

Now where do things stand today?
The old robots are actually experiencing a renaissance. Artists and engineers alike consider the surviving robots as valuable pieces of technology and even as contemporary art. Collectors worldwide willingly spend thousands of dollars to get toy robots which were once considered cheap imported junk. It is not unusual for toys which cost $3.95 40 years ago, to fetch $10,000, $25,000 and even $50,000 now at a Christie's or Sotheby's auction. Also do not let the idea of only one Japanese toy maker continuing to make classic tin robots stop you. In recent times, China has turned into the new robot home. Seeing a voracious appetite for all robotic things, shops in China now churn out the metal marvels in biblical proportions. Today a small collector could purchase a true functioning replica worth $5000 or $10,000 for the measly $50 to $100. Although this might concern many "well heeled" collectors, other people believe the reincarnated robots can only bring new interest and new blood into the industry.