Lionel trains are toy electric trains originally manufactured by the Lionel Corporation. Inventor Joshua Lionel Cowen founded the corporation in 1900. The very first Lionel train was a one-off, created as a store window attraction. According to the National Toy Hall of Fame, customers soon expressed more interest in purchasing the trains than the products the toys were advertising, so Cowen began producing model trains for retail sale.
The National Toy Hall of Fame, which inducted Lionel trains in 2006, states that the original company's products were noted for their high level of attention to detail, smooth operation, three-rail track system and use of transformers that allowed operators to vary the speed of the trains. During the company's heyday during the 1950s, two-thirds of all toy trains sold in the United States were manufactured by Lionel.
The corporation went into liquidation in 1969 and the rights to manufacture trains under the Lionel brand were sold. In an effort to cut costs, Lionel trains produced after this time have a lower level of detail and are crafted mostly from plastic rather than metal. For this reason, Lionel trains manufactured between 1945 and 1969 are highly sought after by collectors, with those in mint condition sometimes changing hands for tens of thousands of dollars.