Then & Now: A History of Wind-Up Toys


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It may be difficult to find a wind-up toy in today’s toy store, with battery-operated gadgets and electronics increasingly outnumbering their mechanical counterparts. Nevertheless, they are far from becoming extinct. Considering that mechanical wind-up toys were of the first automated toys designed (along with air and steam pressure), their origins can be traced all the way back to Greece in 400 BC. A couple of millennia later and designers are still at the drawing board coming up with creative ways to advance the evolution of wind-up toys. From swimming, crawling, walking, jumping, dancing and even transforming, wind-up toys have captured all forms of movement with a simple crank of a key and with it, the amusement of generations of children.

One of my favorite childhood memories of my sisters comes from a family video where my siblings were reluctantly sharing play time with some wind-up toys at Disney World. Completely in awe of Pluto and Donald Duck shuffling their way across the table, my sisters didn’t want to part with their plastic wind-up toys for very long. And while my sisters don’t have the toys anymore, they haven’t forgotten them. Keep reading to find out about the history of wind-up toys and how they have literally paved a way into our hearts.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lion


It is said that in the 16th Century, noted inventor Leonardo Da Vinci designed and built a life-size mechanical lion that he gave as a gift to King George XII. Not only could the mechanical lion walk, this automaton could also open its chest to reveal a cluster of lilies.

Jacques De Vaucanson’s Duck



Centuries later, Frenchman Jacques De Vaucanson invented the first ever mechanical robot. This duck was able to eat grain, drink fluids, and even evacuate the contents from its robotic bowels.

Jaquet-Droz Automata



Around the same time, Swiss watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz finished his set of three animated dolls, The Musician, The Draughtsman and The Writer. Originally created as an advertisement, these mechanical dolls became exceedingly popular and are now housed in the Museum of Art and History in Switzerland.

Clockwork Toys



In the burgeoning 19th century, mechanical clockwork toys hit the scene. Quite expensive at the time, these toys used clock mechanisms to move and were often designed to look like steamboats & trains.

Iron Wind-Up Toys



At the turn of the 20th Century, wind-up toys (driven by a spring) are at the height of their popularity. Usually imported from Europe, these early wind-up toys were completely crafted from iron.

Plastic Wind-Up Toys

After the 1950’s, the traditional iron structure gave way to new lightweight plastic frames. Plastic wind-up toys are still being created today with companies like Z Wind-Ups taking wind-up toys to new heights never before conceived possible.

New school or old school…Which wind-Up toy would you want to play with? Let us know in the comments!


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