Of all the toys little boys have ever dreamed of having, electric train sets undoubtedly top the list – and Lionel Trains were for many years considered the cream of the locomotive toy crop. In 1901, Joshua Lionel Cowen's creativity and passion for trains converged when he engineered a miniature motor underneath a model of a railroad flatcar. This new "electric toy train" was powered by small battery on a mere 30 inches of miniature train track and with that the very first Lionel electric train made its appearance in the marketplace. Since his humble beginnings trying to appeal to New York shoppers, Lionel trains have since steamed across the tracks of toy stores by selling in excess of 50 million toy train sets.
The very first toy train Joshua Cowen engineered was known as the Electric Express. Ironically, the Electric Express was not intentionally designed as a toy, but rather as an attractive and eye-catching window display for toy stores in New York City. The Electric Express moved along a track of two thin steel strips fastened into slotted ties with a mere 2 7/8 inch width between the train track rails. This trailblazing train was propelled by a hybrid fan motor and initially powered by a small battery, before the battery was replaced by a more reliable electric transformer. As fortune would have it, Cowen's Electric Express was so well received by the New York City shoppers that all of the dozen showpieces Lionel trains were soon sold. At the turn of the century, the American public was still very much mesmerized by electric and the combination of locomotion and movement in a miniature train model was a dynamic duo that few consumers could resist!
By the time June 1902 rolled around Lionel would expand their locomotive product line to include what they called a "City Hall Park" trolley along with a suspension bridge that stood over two feet above the ground. The very next year Lionel changed the original gondola from the first issue wood material to metal and added an electric B & O train and a special motorized derrick car. Perhaps the greatest alteration to the Lionel train product line transpired three years later in 1906 when the company added a third rail to their train track. Due to the fact that this modified model was so life-like and effective, most other locomotive toy manufacturers followed in suit by stepping into this new standard of three-rail toy train tracks.
Lionel trains continue to generate upwards of 50 – 60 million dollars each year to this very day. However, the collector value of the newer issue of Lionel trains is significantly lower than those classic series trains manufactured prior to 1969. Though all electric trains continue to be used for both simple playing or by connoisseurs with miniature locomotive operation, the majority of serious Lionel train collectors would agree that the trains and accessories the company manufactured throughout the twenty years immediately after World War II were their best products ever.