Little Alien Robot (1997, China) and Apollo 11 Eagle Lunar Module (1968, Japan). Photograph by Ocs Alvares
Culture Spotlight

Smells like tin spirit: a brief history of the highly collectible tin robots

While the future of robots as autonomous servants to man would prove to be centuries in the making, their potential as forms of amusement were realized much sooner
Iñigo S. Roces | Dec 06 2018

Long before anyone had heard of HAL 9000, the Daleks, or the Terminators, robots were seen as friendly, intelligent, and autonomous machines helping mankind with manual tasks, be it around the house or in the farthest reaches of space.

The word "robot" dates back to the Czech word "roboti" for hard labor, coined by Czech interwar writer Karel Capek in his 1920 play R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots). But robotic devices have been around since 270 B.C., when the Greek engineer Ctesibius produced the first organ and water clocks with moving figures.

Silver Thunder Robot (2002, Japan).

While the future of robots as autonomous servants to man would prove to be centuries in the making, their potential as forms of amusement were realized much sooner. In 1066, the Chinese inventor Su Song built a water clock in the form of a tower, which featured mechanical figurines that chimed the hours. This highlighted the potential of the clockwork motor to power various other autonomous machines for amusement.

Designed at first only for royalty and with a very complex system of gears and springs, they soon fell out of favor. Cheaply made wind-up toys made of wood were then created in very large numbers.

By the mid-1800s, tin plate was used in the manufacture of toys. Thin sheets of steel plated with tin made for a cheap and durable substitute for wood, making the toys lightweight and easier to ship.

Another process called offset lithography allowed manufacturers to print designs on flat tinplate. They were then formed by dies and locked into shape with small tabs. In the early 1900s, Germany was the major producer of tin toys in the world. It wasn't until tin ore mines opened in Illinois shortly after World War I that saw the United States catching up as anti-German sentiment was high.

(L-R) Red Space Walk Man (1970s to 1980s, China) and Schylling Tin Toy robot 2008 (2001, Germany).

World War II halted production of tin toys because raw materials were needed for the war effort. It was the Americans who unwittingly gave Japan the lead, granting manufacturers in Japan the right to resume production under occupation and the Marshall Plan. The idea was to give Japan all of the low profit and high labor manufacturing. US companies could then sell the imported tin toy products. It worked better than they expected, and Japan became a tin toy manufacturing force until the end of the 1950s.

The arrival of robots as the favored form of tin toys corresponds to their rise in popular culture in the 20th century. Speculative authors like Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov postulated worlds populated by them. Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis depicted robots as sophisticated sentient machines, even taking female form in his film. The Popular Science series of short films that ran from 1935 to 1949 also showed an assortment of strange and whimsical inventions, many of them featuring robots in humanoid form.

After World War II, the popularity of robot tin toys, usually armed with the latest space-age gadgetry, also grew with new advancements in technology, from atomic power during World War II, to the space race during the 60s, and culminating in the moon landing in 1969.

Click on the image below for slideshow

(L-R) Saito Gangu S2-70o Air Car (196os, Japan), Space missile tin wind-up vehicle (1990s Japan), Schylling Rocket Racer (2001 Germany), Saito Gangu Hover Rally (19705, Japan), and Schylling Mars Explorer (1996, Germany). 

(L-R) Galaxy Cone Head Robot (1950s, Japan), Mighty Robot (2ocoo, China), Astro Scout (1962, Japan), Mechander Robo (Japan, 1977), Red Tin Planet Robot Tin Toy Windup (2005, China) and Musical Drummer Robot (19505, Japan). 

Rocket USA Cosmic Ray Gun Chrome (1997, USA). 

(L-R) Schylling Atomic Robot Man (1997 U.S.A.), Rocket USA R1 Rescue Robot (1997, U.S.A.), Rocket USA Rs. Rescue Robot (1997, U.S.A.), Spark Robot (19905, China), Rocket USA Masudaya Gang of Five: Target (1997 U.S.A.), Rocket USA Masudaya Gang of Five: Non-Stop (1997, U.S.A.) and Astronaut Wind-up Walking with Sparks (199os China). 

(L-R) Robby the Robot (1957, Japan), ALPS Television Robot (1959, Japan) and ALPS Television Spaceman (1961, Japan). 

Though cheaper plastic and new government safety regulations ended the reign of tin toys, Japanese tin toy robots are still the most revered. Some of the most expensive were made in Japan from the late 1930s to 1940s and, valued at USD 3,000 to USD 8,000.

The most coveted is a Robby Space Patrol toy made by Nomura in 1957. This incredibly detailed robot is battery-operated and sits atop a meticulously lithographed space car. It is valued from between USD 6,000 to USD 30,000, if in mint condition with its original box. It's rare and treasured not just because it was produced in small numbers, but also because MGM sued Nomura shortly after the toy was released. MGM said Nomura infringed the copyright of its Robby robot character in the MGM film Forbidden Planet.

With litigation as the topper, these antique toy robots continue to charm collectors today. 


Photography by Ocs Alvares

This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 7 2012.