Wednesday, June 6, 2012



The invention of the electric trains was a lucky accident. Toy trains arrived soon after the advent of the railroad. Wind-up mechanical trains were available in the 1850’s. But it wasn’t until 1902 that an electric train became popular with children. Joshua Lionel Cowan was trying to create an exciting display in a New York store window. Just to catch the customer’s eye, Cowan made a crude electric train with a cheese box on wheels hooked up to an electric motor. The train ran on some tracks hauling around some of the sale goods. He named the train the Electric Express, and it was just an advertising gimmick.


But customers paid more attention to the little wooden train than they did to its cargo. Soon a customer bought the exhibit train and Cowan realized he had a hit. Cowan soon founded the Lionel Manufacturing Company to make his electric Lionel trains. There were electric trains already on the market, but they ran on limited life batteries and were not under the child’s control. They just turned it on and it went on its own. Cowan was an electrical engineer and he figured out how to run the train on current. He invented a multivolt transformer that reduced house current down to a safer 20 volts. He also invented a controller so children could control the speed and stop and start the train on their own. In later years, the train could reverse and the whistle would blow.

The company quickly became successful, despite the competition from German electric train manufacturers. Germans were renowned for making the best toys, but the WWI changed that. Now Lionel had a chance to not just be one of many manufacturers, but the dominant company in toy trains. By 1921, sales were well over 800,000 a year.

But the Depression hurt his business, his trains were fairly expensive. He was able to continue the business, but the sales were less than the prosperous 1920’s. The company made no trains during WWII, due to wartime shortages of metal.


In 1946 Lionel trains were back on the market. Sales of the train topped 10 million dollars that year and they kept rising each year. By 1953, every little boy wanted a Lionel train and most fathers bought them. Sales were 33 million per year by 1953. The train was successful partially because of advertising. The theme in most of the ads was father and son working together to run the railroad. Lionel Train can “make a Boy feel like a Man and a Man feel like a Boy.”

Undoubtedly many girls played with the trains but this was a boys toy. Lionel did put out a train for girls in the 1950’s called the Lady Lionel, with a pink engine and pastel boxcars. It was not a success. If a girl wanted a train, she wanted the classic Lionel, not a cut little pink one.

After the train was bought, fathers could still buy many accessories including more track, new cars, and stations. For a number of years Lionel was the king of trains, but new companies started offering smaller, cheaper trains and boys fell in love with new toys, such as toy cars. The company changed ownership and was never a dominant part of the toy market after the 1950’s. But Lionel Trains still exist, now they are less of a children’s toy and more of a collectable for adults.

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