The first electric toy train was produced by the American firm Carlisle and French in 1897, and the product quickly gained in popularity as residential use of electricity became more common in the early 20th century.
Because of that lack of electricity in many homes, the earliest electric trains actually ran on batteries. Even today battery power is used by owners of larger scale systems, like the ones which run round gardens, because of the difficulty of obtaining a reliable power supply through outdoor rails and the high power consumption. The needs are more easily and safely met with rechargeable batteries. However, inexpensive train sets powered by batteries are regarded as toys by those for whom train sets are a hobby.
Although it is claimed that model building was started as a hobby by a group of Englishmen, the first commercial railway sets were made by Marklin in Germany in 1891, and the first electric models where introduced just before the First World War.
Alexander Gregory Vanetzian developed an electric toy train for Christmas 1950. His company was bought out by Lines Bros and in 1951 sold under the Tri-ang Railways name. In 1954 the renamed Rovex Scale Models Ltd moved to Margate, Kent.
As time went on these electric trains grew in sophistication. Lighting was added, plus an ability to change direction, emulate the whistle of a real train, emit smoke, couple and uncouple cars, and load and unload cargo.
The early electric models used a three-rail system. The wheels were on a metal track with metal sleepers conducting power, and a middle rail providing power to a skid under the locomotive. That worked well, but, as both train and track were made of crude tin-plate, insulation was often a problem.
As accuracy became more important, some systems adopted two-rail power in which the wheels were isolated and the rails carried the positive and negative supply or two sides of the AC supply, while others, such as Märklin, used fine metal studs to replace the central rail, allowing the existing three-rail models to use more realistic track.
Where the model is of an electric locomotive, it may be supplied by overhead lines, just like the real thing. This was one way of controlling two trains separately on the same track.
Many of today's electric toy trains contain sophisticated electronics which can reproduce sound effects and allow the operator to safely and easily run multiple remote control trains on just one loop of track.
Setting up a collection can be a thrilling and very rewarding experience. When you buy your first set look for quality and durability, not necessarily the cheapest option. That way you will have something that lasts and can be passed on to future generations. And once you have started, bear in mind that there is limitless scope for expansion in the form of extra track, stations and trains, as well as a wide variety of accessories. Developing a set in this way is something that can involve the whole family.