Friday, August 28, 2009

Guest Article: Vintage Space Toys From Down Under

A few months back, Australian space toy collector Steven Baker contacted me with some information about the manufacturing date of my Pow'r Pop Ray Gun. We got to chatting, and I discovered that Steven isn't only a space toy collector from Australia, but his collection is actually focused on space toys from Australia and New Zealand. Since this is an area of the hobby about which I know absolutely nothing, I invited him to write a guest article about his collecting and these little known (here in the States, anyway) toys. So take it away, Steven... 

I suppose my interest in space toys stems from my fascination with space travel as a kid. Where other Aussie kids could tell you the specs on a Holden Monaro I was more at ease with the specs of the Saturn V rocket. My interest was no doubt also helped along by my uncle who worked at the Carnarvon tracking station in Western Australia during the Apollo program, so I would get posters, badges, and stickers about the space program. 

However, even with this interest and the discovery of science fiction, I didn’t really get into collecting space toys until this century. It came about from a junction of events, the first of which was moving to the United States as part of my job. The second was the discovery of eBay shortly thereafter while searching for medieval archer’s thumb rings (another collection and another story). Eventually I discovered space toys and found that these were fascinating items. Mostly I collected rockets and vehicles made of tin. It wasn’t until I bought the book Blast Off and came across a description of an Australian toy rocket, the Z-010 Space Ranger, that I became interested in Aussie space toys.

The Z-010: A beautiful space ship! (All photos courtesy of Steven Baker, unless otherwise noted.)

I started finding some toys that were made in Australia but they seemed few and far between, which made it slightly disheartening. However after reading an interview by Alan Griffiths of the Australian Museum Of Childhood where he mentioned that in America a company might produce a million toys of one type whereas in Australia a company might produce just five thousand, I realised that collecting these toys would be a challenge and an exciting trip into Australia’s recent past. Along the way I decided to include New Zealand toys because that country also had at one stage a thriving toy industry, supplying a small population just like Australia -- as well being our neighbour and good natured rival.

So what toys and games have I come across? Most of them are moulded plastic and in a lot of cases made using forms from the U.S. or the U.K. Some have been rebadged or retooled to give an Australian and New Zealand identity. An example of the former is the Flash Gordon Rocket Ship and for the latter the Atomic Jet ray gun. In some cases, like the Z-010 Space Ranger they were made to a different scale.

This can cause a degree of confusion with the “originals” and in some cases a strong degree of uncertainty, particularly where no maker’s mark can be found. I have a few toys that I’ve bought from Australian dealers but I can’t be certain they were made here; these end up in my research category. There are a number of toys which seem uniquely Australian as I can find no precedents in other countries. An example of this is the Glenn Atomic Pow’r Pop gun, but there is also the Speedline Ute (Pickup) from Playmate Toys.

Pow'r Pop Gun (Glenn, 1951). From the collection of Doc Atomic.

Speedline Pickup

The oldest example I have of Aussie design is the Marquis racing car. The Powerhouse museum in Sydney has an example of this car still on the sprue and donated to the museum in 1941. 

These locally designed and made toys are, to me at least, the most intriguing and exciting. There is something in their lines, plus the fact that they were designed and made locally for local kids, that gives them something extra. The ones made from overseas forms interest me mostly because they raise questions like: How did they come to be here? Why were they chosen? And what made them of interest to the manufacturer -- was it the design, the cost or something else?

I should say at this point that I collect toys, not collectibles. While I try to find the best example I can of each, I also want a toy that has been played with. The reason is that to me a played with toy not only imbues it with the imagination and desires of its creators, but also that of the child who played with it. Did they go to other worlds, were they vanquishing villains, hunting monsters or rescuing people in danger?

New Zealand starts to really make an appearance in the games department -- they seem to have largely concentrated on space games rather than space toys. Most of the games are from the Sixties, and then a number from the Eighties and Nineties. The period in between seems particularly vacant and may reflect either the increase in imported games or the decline in interest in things spacey during the Seventies, which then resurged on the release of movies such as Star Wars and ET.

Whatever the case, as with the toys, some of the games were made under license from a U.S. or U.K. company, while others were made by overseas companies with local manufacturing facilities. The ones from the Eighties and Nineties, however, appear to be either self published or an out growth from companies making RPG games.

The ones that stand out in my mind amongst all of the games are Rokeeto and Moonshot. Moonshot by Vic-Toy of New Zealand I find intriguing because it’s a small game at 16cm x 16cm (6in x 6in) and the game board is actually the back of the box. I keep wondering if this was meant to be a travelling game -- one to take with you on long trips -- or was it made to meet with a set manufacturing cost or retail price. 


Rokeeto was made by Murfett and has the strangest concept for a game I’ve ever seen. Basically you place the “rockets” on the board and then roll a die. Whatever coloured dot shows up determines which of the rockets you'd then take and load onto the launch pad (a piece of cardboard with a groove). You'd then blow on it to launch it, with the hope of knocking over the remaining rockets of the same colour.


So who are the companies that made these toys and games? While most of the games were made by dedicated games manufacturers, most of the toys were made by plastics companies as a means of reaching a greater number of customers. Some of the game makers are Crown and Andrews, Tanner Couch Ltd, Murfett, and John Sands. The toy makers are companies such as Lincoln International, Vic-Toy, Triang Pedigree, Moldex, Moulded Products Australasia, Toltoys, Comet, Visual Toys, and Glenn. 

Some of these companies were large by Australian and New Zealand standards, and you can find business records, etc. online, and track how they changed and developed. Other companies, however, were small and very local, which means going to the places and hunting through libraries and museums. An example of this sort of small company is Visual Toys, which was associated with the Captain Atom comics (this is the Australian Captain Atom not the one from either DC comics or Charlton). You would send in the coupon clipped from the comic along with your money and you would get the pistol and some “movie” reels. However, when you look at what you got the box is monotone, no artwork and the instruction sheet is run off on a roneo machine (pre-photocopier) rather than a printing press. 

Having collected these toys and games I now find myself having to go deeper. I need to hunt up ads, magazines, comics and catalogues which show these toys and games and to start searching the state and national libraries for business records and the like.  


Space Cadet Gun

I originally bought this because it was made of diecast metal and was a match for a design of ray gun I really liked. However, when I received it in the post I found on the Saturn under the “Space Cadet” wording a company name of Brentoy. This turned out to be an Australian company which also had a New Zealand subsidiary called Brentware. Brentoy produced mainly diecast vehicles before Matchbox, Corgi, etc. moved into the market. It was most likely made to capitalise on the Tom Corbett: Space Cadet radio series which started broadcasting in 1954. Alternately, it could be related to the locally printed Tom Corbett comic -- one of those "send in the coupon and a certain amount of cash" deals. The other thing that makes it interesting is that it’s a cap gun with a concealed cap mechanism.

Duperite Aero Car

This is a copy of the Plas-Tex Aero Car. Where it differs from the Plas-Tex (at least as far as my research shows) is the spring driven mechanism you can see on the underside photo. It’s not anything special but I wonder why it was included. Did the Australian makers decide they needed to include some mechanism to make it move, or did they have a load left over from another toy that they wanted to use up?


This game positively intrigues me as there is no maker’s mark to indicate who made it and it has a combination of Australian primary industries and futuristic possibilities that beggars the question: Why? I would date it in the early to mid Sixties based on the fact that in Australia, we moved away from pounds, shillings, and pence in 1967/68. 

Vic-Toy Moonshot

This one dates from around 1973 and is just fun. It has a combination of graphics which show both real and imaginary space vehicles. Given its small form factor and the use of the back of the box as the game board more and more suggests to me that it was designed as a simple travel game to keep kids amused on long car trips. This game also gives me a feeling that we have space travel now but there’s still a way to go, hence the mix of space vehicles. 

Fethalite Atomic Jet Ray Gun

This ray gun interests me mostly because of its association with the Rocky Starr radio show. Plus, the ad featuring this gun got me started focusing on Aussie and Kiwi space toys. It was made in the late 1950’s as a reward for raising 30 shillings for charity. I like the lines on it  -- they’re simple and clean.

Marquis Racing Car

Again this is one that I love for its lines and style. I also enjoy the fact that it seems to have been designed in Australia as I haven’t found any overseas examples. As for its age, the Powerhouse museum has an example they received for an exhibition in 1941. In addition, I have a copy of the September 1947 Australian Plastics journal with an article on toys which shows this car in a couple of photos.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

eBay Photo Scandal: Important New Policies

A slightly hyperbolic headline, I know, but I wanted to get everyone's attention. If you sell anything on eBay, you need to be aware of this.

Ebay is now building a library of images pulled from auctions, which can be used by any other eBay seller. For instance, if you have an auction, and someone else has a similar auction, that other person can use your pics. 

The most annoying part of it all is that you are automatically opted in to the program. 

If you opt out by August 31, none of your photos will be used in this database. If you opt out after August 31, any photos posted up until that point remain fair game.

Here's how to opt out:

1. Go to My eBay.
2. Place your mouse over the Account tab.
3. From the drop-down menu, select Site Preferences.
4. Go down the list until you see Selling Preferences.
5. Find Share Your Photos.
6. Click Show. Click Edit.
7. You'll be allowed to Opt Out of the program. Then click Submit.

For more, check out this informative article.

Space Toys Online: Robot Olé

Image courtesy of Robot Olé

Continuing the Spanish theme, I'd like to direct you all to the wonderful web site Spanish Olé ( It features toy robots only from Spain, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. Many are vintage and some of them are very, very rare.

The site, which is written in both Spanish and English, is broken down by country of origin, and each robot entry includes such information as the toy's name, material, date of manufacture, company and actions, as well as some random notes. Robot Olé also includes links to other robot sites, shops, and online museums.

A great site, and well worth the time it takes to explore it fully.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Argentine Robot (Giroplast / Early 1970s / Argentina / 6 inches)

The Attic of Astounding Artifacts was recently mentioned on a blog called Oink ( Sadly, I can't actually read the blog because it's in Spanish. However, I greatly appreciate the shout out, especially since it's driven more than 200 400 new people to the Attic. Wow! Thanks!

In honor of all my new Spanish and Latin American readers, I've decided show off the only robot I've got from a country where Spanish is the native language: The Argentine Robot.

It probably won't surprise anyone to learn that this neat little toy hails from Argentina. It has a simple enough design, but make no mistake: The Argentine Robot's charm lies in the details. Unlike every other vintage toy robot, this one is hand painted, making each a singular piece of artwork. Collectors dream about owning a unique toy -- in this case, every example of the toy is unique!

Note the roughly painted details on the face and chest. I particularly like the gold details on the belt and hands.

I love the robot's action: when wound, it skitters around with a sort of bouncing, jittery movement, kind of like it's dancing to its own spastic, internal beat. The Argentine Robot's made from very -- very -- thin celluloid plastic, and I'm always amazed that any survived the last 30-plus years. But survive they did, and a couple pop up every year or so. (Quick Note: I don't like to discuss active eBay auctions, but I have to break my own rule this once: There's one on eBay now with an outrageous Buy-It-Now price of more than $400. Be patient, save your money, and you'll eventually find a much more affordable example.)

The tin celluloid plastic walls and minimal mechanics makes for a light, delicate robot.

The Argentine Robot is yet another toy that I used to dislike. I thought it was kind of primitive and, well, ugly. Then, one day, I had a chance to really examine the robot up close -- its hand-painted details quickly won me over. The primitiveness became an asset, and I've since grown to enjoy it immensely. A fun, odd, interesting little robot that looks great on any toy shelf.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Toys That Never Were: Classic Robot Cinema

I've often mentioned the impact that Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot had on vintage toys. The company Nomura, for instance, used him as a model no less than three times -- with numerous variations to each of those designs. Other companies followed suit, and that familiar domed head, those stubby arms, and puffy, "sausage-stack" legs became common on many kids' -- and later, collectors' -- toy shelves.

Two of Nomura's Robby the Robot inspired toys: Mechanized Robot (left) and Piston Robot (a.k.a. "Pug Robby")

But Robby wasn't the only robot roaming Hollywood's back lots. Science-Fiction films of the 1950s gave audiences numerous mechanical men to root for -- and against. Some of the greatest include the stoic and sublime Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still; the robotic invaders from Target Earth; and the menacing creation from Satan's Satellites. Each provided a fantastic opportunity for some fun toys. 

Sadly, manufacturers never acted upon this opportunity, and it drives me nuts. But in the days before licensing deals and tie-ins, synergistic marketing and cross-over opportunities, Burger King glasses and McDonald's Happy Meals, movie studios just weren't thinking about turning their characters into toys. So while kids could spend a couple hours in a dark theater being wowed -- or terrified -- by these robots, they never had a chance to play with them at home. Consequently, they're not around for us to collect today. 

Not that some collectors haven't done their best to rectify the situation. Over the last 20 or so years, some of the more enterprising members of the hobby have tried to solve the problem of these non-existent toys by turning their talents towards the creation of custom pieces. Many came out remarkably well, a testament to the builder's skill and passion. However, only a small amount of these handmade toys were ever produced, and they're difficult to find today. Most collectors who do own them aren't looking to give them up.

One toy that did make it into production a few years ago -- and is still being made -- was Rocket USA's wind-up Gort figure. It's a well made toy, and features a walking mechanism as well as a flip-up visor. Sadly, unlike it's cinematic inspiration, it doesn't fire a death ray.

Rocket USA's Gort toy. 

It's also worth noting that B9, the popular robot from the TV series Lost In Space, managed to make his way out of Hollywood and into toy stores. By the 1960s, studios were finally licensing their properties, and this allowed the company Remco to release what has become one of the most commonly found versions of the character. While not super-accurate, the striking, plastic toy has today become a popular collectible. Another version of the robot was released by Hong Kong's AHI in the early 1970s, and still another -- similar to the Remco -- was put out by a Mexican company. Others followed suit (though not all were licensed).

The Remco B9 (top) and AHI's version of the robot. 

Still, that's only three robots. It's okay, I guess -- there are more than enough Robby and B9 variations to keep me busy for years. But as I'm sitting here, late at night, thinking about my collection, I can't help but feel a bit wistful about all the robots that might have been. 

Friday, August 21, 2009

Win Stuff!

That's right, kids. It's time to win some fun prizes! For months now, I've been trying to entertain and educate you all on the glories of vintage space toys by writing about, and photographing, interesting robots and ray guns from my collection. Well, now it's time for you to entertain me!

~the contest~

Write a short story that uses one or more of the toys featured in this blog. 
I don't mean write about the toys. Rather, I want you to write something that makes these toys real and uses them as props or characters. Perhaps a story about a space hero who uses a Pyrotomic Disintegrator, or a Smoking Spaceman that saves a colony of alien farmers. I don't care -- use your imagination and see what you come up with. There's no length requirement or restriction. 


Create some visual art using representations of one or more of these toys. 
Again, use your imagination! Don't just create a portrait of the toy -- that's boring and probably won't win. This can be a comic, an illustration, a painting, a sculpture, a photo montage, a piece of animation -- anything!


EMAIL ME a copy of what you've written or a photo/scan/whatever of your visual masterpiece. 
I'll pick one winner from the written category and one winner from the visual category to each receive a grand prize. You're free to submit as many entries as you like, in either category -- or both! However, you can only win once.

Let me repeat: Entries should be EMAILED TO ME. Use the button on the right side of the blog -- it will take you to my profile page, which has an email link. 


All entries must be received by 11:59 p.m. EST on Monday, September 7 September 21. That should give you all enough time to blow my mind.

~the prize~

So what do you win? Glad you asked! You'll win at least a modern reproduction of a vintage robot, to be picked by me. You'll probably win some other stuff, but I'm still thinking about the prize pack. Besides, isn't it more fun to be surprised? I promise not to foist any of my random junk on you -- this isn't an excuse to clear out my clutter. 

Unless you ask me not to, all entries will be posted on the Attic of Astounding Artifacts -- at my discretion. You can feel free to get as R-rated as you like, but since this is a PG-13 blog, I reserve the right to not show the rest of the world your masterpiece. You can still win a prize, though -- good is good, right? 

So that's it. Get cracking! I'm looking forward to seeing what you all create.

Some legal fine print: 
All entries remain the property of their creators. The creators automatically grant permission for me to post their entries on my blog. However, if they tell me not to, I won't (easy, right?). All prizes are intended for adult collectors, and the Attic of Astounding Artifacts and its owner are in no way responsible for anything that might happen once you take possession of the prizes. (I know, I know -- they're just toys. But I've gotta say it.) The winner will be picked by me, Doc Atomic. My decisions remain final. There is no cost to enter, and shipping for the prizes will be paid by the Attic of Astounding artifacts. Contest is open to anyone, including friends and relatives of Doc Atomic. 

Space Patrol Cosmic Smoke Gun (U.S. Plastics / 1950s / U.S. / 3 x 6; 3 x 4.5)

The TV series Space Patrol, which ran from 1950 to 1955, helped usher in the space craze of the 1950s. It's no surprise, then, that it also spawned a mountain of merchandise, including the wonderful Cosmic Smoke Guns.

This was the type of toy you can have fun with. It fires a puff of powder that does pretty much whatever kids in the 1950s needed it to do depending on what type of alien or evil overlord was attacking them. Of course, since the alien or evil overlord was probably being played by the kid next door, the most likely affect of the powder was temporary blindness and a face that looked like the third day of a cocaine bender. But all in good fun, right?

The Cosmic Smoke Gun was a mail-away cereal premium; send in a number of box tops and a couple quarters, wait six to eight weeks, and the toy magically ended up in your mailbox. It was available in two sizes: five and six inches. Each size also came in one of two colors: red and metallic green. However, the small green gun and the large red gun are both exceedingly rare; the reverse colors -- large and green, small and red -- pop up on eBay all the time. (A large red one did, however, recently appeared on eBay -- I wrote about it here.) However, even the common versions of the toy can still fetch good money since so many different people want to get them: Space Patrol collectors, ray gun collectors, powder-shooter collectors (seriously, they exist), and cereal premium collectors.

Leslie Singer, author of Zap!, has said that the red Cosmic Smoke Gun is his favorite ray gun, and it's easy to understand why. The toy's creatively designed, compact, and has great play value. Personally, I like the green one more -- I'm a sucker for metallic colors -- but regardless, I wholeheartedly agree that this toy is one of the greats.

I snagged my green one off eBay -- of course -- but the red one was an honest-to-goodness antique store find. That's rare in this day and age; and often, when a toy does show up in a store (or at a toy show or a flea market), it's way overpriced. Not so with this one, which sold for a couple bucks below what it usually gets online. I should also point out that I own my good buddy Donald Conner a tip of the hat -- he was the one who actually found this piece and then gave me the heads up so I could get it.

By the way, if you'd like to learn more about Space Patrol, check out the excellent Solar Guard Space Patrol Web Site.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Interview: Author and Collector Leslie Singer

In the Seventies and Eighties, ray guns weren't the big-ticket items they are today. You could find them at toy shows and flea markets for a few dollars; some might cost $25 or so, and a few rare ones could fetch just about $100. But Leslie Singer loved them, and had been reliving his childhood for years by picking them up whenever he had the chance. "These were the toys I played with as a kid," he says. "Forget cowboys -- I wanted to play space. And that meant playing with ray guns!"

In 1991, while looking at his collection, Singer suddenly hit on a great idea: Why not publish a book on ray guns? With his background as an ad director and copywriter, and his obvious, head-over-heels infatuation with these toys, he was the perfect person to make the project a reality. So, grabbing some guns and a photographer to take a few demo pictures, he put together a package for Chronicle Books. Then he waited. And waited. And waited, until, three months later, they got back to him: Do it.

The result was Zap!, the world's first book on vintage toy ray guns. Slick, brightly colored, and full of amazing photos, it took the hobby by storm, opening up a whole new universe of collectibles for space-toy fans everywhere. Today, the book stands as a major milestone in the history of space-toy collecting, and its author is rightly hailed as an innovative, groundbreaking collector. 

During a recent visit to New York City, Leslie Singer stopped by the Attic of Astounding Artifacts to discuss ray guns, his days as a collector, and, of course, Zap!

Leslie Singer posing in front of some of the Attic's toy shelves.

DOC ATOMIC In the introduction to Zap!, you discuss playing with some of these ray guns as a kid. 
LESLIE SINGER I grew up in Long Beach, Long Island. My dad was a science fiction fan, and I was really taken with anything called, in the 1950s, "modern." So me and my friend Jeff were totally into space-play. Captain Video, Tom Corbett, Space Patrol. I just loved the futuristic look of that stuff. The guns, toy cars, consoles. And of course, guns and boys go together perfectly. I played space all day long, built rocket models, that kind of thing. I used to go to the Hayden Planetarium all the time; I was totally enamored of the future, space travel, the graphics -- everything! 

Did you own many guns from that time?
I only had a few from the 1950s, when I was growing up. I hadn't collected any guns from the Thirties or the Forties. I just got the ones you could get off the TV commercials, or from the five and dime store. I didn't have that many, we didn't have a lot of money. So when I did get one, I treasured it. My friend Jeffrey had more money, and he had a lot more of them.

One of my favorites at the time was the Space Patrol Cosmic Smoke Gun -- I loved that one. It's interesting that it seems to be a favorite of other people, too. I had a Three-Color Gun by Ideal -- my father had given that one to me when I was a kid. It always fascinated me -- others were sleek and art deco, but that one was bulbous and funky. Another of my favorites was this little, grey, swirled plastic gun with a whistle on the end. I don't even know if it had a name. It was a cheap little gun, but I love it. I also had the Buck Rogers Sonic Ray Gun -- the black one with the yellow cap. That was a real favorite because it had a lot going on. There were those mysterious plus and minus signs, the telescopic sight. A great toy.

Two early faves: The U.S. Plastics Space Patrol Cosmic Smoke Gun (top) and Ideal's Three-Color Gun.

What got you back into ray guns?
When I met my wife in 1976, we were both antique and pop-culture collectors -- we both loved stuff from the 1950s. I was at an antique show with her and I saw a Nu-Matic Paper Popper. I remember saying to her, "I'm going to collect ray guns." I bought that one for $10. 

The flame was lit under me. I had a happy childhood, and the whole nostalgic thing kicked in. So whenever I'd go to a toy show, I'd get a ray gun. There was no big market for them, and they only cost $10 or $15. The most I'd spent at that time was for a mint-in-box Hubley Atomic Disintegrator -- $90. Then things started picking up. I bought my Buck Rogers XZ-31 Rocket Pistol for $90, and had to drive 100 miles to get it. Another one that was a favorite of mine was the Spin Ray -- that was a fabulous find for me. I'd never seen it before. I was excited about that -- that's the most bizarre looking toy. I remember finding the Flash Gordon Radio Repeater. That was the first time I'd ever seen it -- remember, there weren't any toy books with these things in them that I knew about. So I'd go to toy shows and dream about my childhood for days. It was fabulous.

Nu-Matic Paper Popper (top) and Hubley's mighty Atomic Disintegrator.

How often were you adding to your collection?
I was lucky if I was getting a new gun every three months. I'd be lucky if I found two at a toy show that I could afford. I don't think I ever got more than one or two over a 90 day period. I don't think I ever paid more than $125 for a new gun, though. 

What was attracting you to them? Was it just nostalgia?
Oh no, it was aesthetics for me. I liked old toys. In fact, the newer toys in Zap! were included because the publisher asked me to put them in. [Zap! features guns from the Thirties through the Eighties -- Ed.] know, I didn't really care about the history, the variations, or the different stories behind the manufacturers -- I was strictly into them from a graphical, design point of of view. 

You were collecting before anyone knew much of anything about these ray guns. Often times, they were missing parts and no one even knew. So how important was condition to you? 
I didn't need it to be mint. I actually liked the idea that they were played with, and I liked when they showed that. And like you said, in some cases, we just didn't know. Like the Renwal on the cover -- it's missing the cap, but that wouldn't have made a difference to me because it still looks so great.

That shows you the kind of collector I am. I'm not an aficionado. I was reading a review after the book came out. Now, most people liked the book, but one reviewer was just furious. He called it a pathetic attempt at a collection because it didn't have the Quisp gun! They were just appalled! [laughs]

Are you still collecting? 
Yes and no. After I wrote the book, I happened to meet the artist Peter Max. He collects collections, and he asked me if I'd like to trade my ray gun collection for an original painting of his. I said yes, but I wanted to keep some that were particularly personal, like the Space Patrol Cosmic Smoke Gun, and the Ideal Three-Color Gun. I also kept the first gun in the book, a really wrecked example of the Buck Rogers XZ-38 Disintegrator Pistol that a friend had dug out of his yard. I gave him the rest, though -- like my Hiller Atom Jet water pistol, my early Buck Rogers guns, the Flash Gordon Radio Repeater, and the Flash Gordon Siren Gun --  and ended up with a big, original painting of the Planet Jet Gun from the cover of my book. 

How did you meet Peter Max?
My wife and I are from Little Rock, Arkansas, and we've known Bill and Hillary Clinton for many years. In 1992, we were at an event for the Presidential campaign, and Peter Max was there, too. A mutual friend introduced us -- Peter asked for a copy of my book, so I sent it to him. He came back to me asking about my collection.

Besides the allure of an original Peter Max painting, why did you decide to trade away your ray guns? 
I was just ready. I'd already had the collection for a number of years, and I'd published the book, and I felt like it was just a great opportunity. So except for keeping those personal favorites, I was ready to move on.

Do you still buy any ray guns today?
I collect some of the newer ones, and some of the limited-edition creations made by artists. I love the pieces Weta does, and I've got a couple of the beautiful hand-blown glass ray guns, too. I also collect other space toys, like walkie talkies -- really, anything that shows off the retro-future.

So what made you decide to write the book?
I was looking at my collection when I realized there wasn't a book out there. I'm in advertising, and I'm a writer. I work with photographers. I knew how to do it. I said, no one's done it, I'll do it. I literally wrote a two-paragraph letter to Chronicle Books. I included some photos a friend of mine took, just as a test, so they could see the toys. I sent it all to Chronicle with the letter saying, "Hey, how about a book on ray guns?" Three months later, I got a letter saying they decided to do it. Then they asked for the copy and the photos in time to get it out by Christmas -- 90 days! So I shot 4 x 5 film and I did a little research on when the guns were made. I wrote the story in the introduction about playing with the ray guns as a kid, and I sent it all to the publisher. I never saw it again until it came back as the book.

How much input did you have with the final product? 
I suggested the name, and they did the layout. They sent me back a cover with some gun on it from 1965, one of the Japanese tin guns. I thought I'd rather have something else, something more deco, so they replaced it with the Planet Jet. That was it, the rest was all them. 

What did you think when you finally saw the finished product?
I just loved it. I loved the way it looked: Just this big yellow gun on a black background. I loved the way they designed the book, too. It actually won an international design award the year after it came out. A pretty big one -- that was all the publisher's doing. Really, the book was exactly what I wanted it to be. I still have the very first copy I took out of the box. 

What about the price guide in the back of the book? Was that your idea, or the publishers?
They asked me to put it in. They said it would double the number of books they could sell by appealing to collectors who might not care about the look of the guns. The prices are all off today, of course, but they were what I was seeing at the time. It's interesting today to see how the prices have changed, actually. 

Did you ever think your book would have such an impact, or that it would even be remembered today?
It never crossed my mind. Even after it came out, I never even considered that I'd be talking about it nearly 20 years later. You know, I went to a film festival in Memphis that had Tom Corbett and the whole crew in attendance. I brought them each a book. I was sitting there with [Tom Corbett actor] Frankie Thomas and all the other actors, and he says, looking at the book, "This is my whole childhood." 

I said, "Guess what? You're my whole childhood." I think that's what I was trying to capture in the book. 

Monday, August 17, 2009

Space Toys on eBay: A Roundup of Ended Auctions

Ebay is a fantastic place to window shop, and you never know what sort of interesting toys will pop up. Even if I'm not looking to spend any money, I like to keep track of what's coming and going. Since I'm following these toys anyway, I figured I'd start posting some of the more interesting ones that pop up every few weeks. 

I'm intentionally leaving out information about the auctions themselves -- who was selling the toy, what it went for, etc. While it's public information, I still feel like I'd be stepping on other collectors' toes by including those details. So consider this just a heads up on some cool toys you might have missed. 

So... What was on eBay during the last few weeks? Lots of juicy stuff!

1. Pistola Spaziale (Samco, 1960s)

A rare toy released by an Italian company, the Pistola Spaziale is clearly based on the Dan Dare Cosmic Ray Gun. The company replaced the flashlight and reflector dish with a dart mechanism, and then included two darts based on the ones included with the Space Patrol (and Dan Dare) Rocket Dart Gun. While other companies -- all Italian -- have copied the Cosmic Ray Gun, Samco is the only one to use the actual gun. If you were to look closely at the toy, you'd see that it has all the same markings as the original -- including the words "Made in England!" How do you say "ballsy" in Italian?

2. Mechanical Robot (Unknown, 1960s)

This simple Japanese robot features a wind up mechanism that causes it to sort of shuffle/hop around. It's surprisingly uncommon, and is often missing the decal on its chest. Kind of goofy looking, yeah, but I really like it. 

3. Space Patrol Cosmic Smoke Gun (U.S. Plastics, 1952)

This large sized, red Space Patrol gun is really, really rare. Normally, this version of the toy is metallic green; red was used for a version that has a smaller barrel. Every once in a while, a small green one will appear, but in all my years of collecting, I've never seen a large red version of the gun. Fascinating. (Note: By large I mean about six inches... the small one is about four inches long. Just so we're all on the same page.)

4. Planet Robot (Yoshiya, 1958)

Generally, the metallic blue paint job was only used on the battery operated Planet Robots. This is an extremely rare wind up, metallic blue Planet Robot. To see it is to love it, which is unfortunate since this is only the fourth example I've ever seen, and the only one that actually appeared on eBay. Unrequited love is a painful, painful thing.

5. Water Pistol (Reliable, 1950s)

A rare water gun made by the Canadian company Reliable. I don't actually know much about this toy, except that whoever put it on eBay included a very affordable buy-it-now, and I stupidly took my time debating whether I wanted to shell out the money. The decision was made for me when someone else bought it. Someone smarter than me. (A friend of mine likes to say that buy-it-nows always seem much more reasonable after someone else has bought the toy. So it goes.)

6. Dan Dare Rocket Pistol (Merit, 1950s)

The British company Merit based their Dan Dare Rocket Pistol on U.S. Plastics' Space Patrol Rocket Dart Gun. Same basic mold, but using metallic colors. It's much less common than it's American counterpart, too, especially here in the States. I've got the rarer copper version (hah!), but I don't have the great box (grr!). Note the darts -- they're the ones that Samco -- in this article's first entry -- used for their Pistola Spaziale.

7. Thunder Robot (Asakusa, 1967)

This strange looking tin robot is also mighty rare. The toy's got a great action: It walks forward with spinning propeller, then stops, raises his arms, and fires his light up hand cannons with a rat-tat-tat sound. Kinda makes you wonder where Tony Stark got his idea for Iron Man's repulser cannons... If you like this toy but can't afford an original, you'll be happy to know that a number of inexpensive reproductions have been released over the years. A quick search on eBay will turn up a bunch of them. Definitely a fun one to have sitting on the shelf.

8. Mr. Atomic (Cragstan, 1962)

One of my all-time favorites. Unfortunately, it's rare and expensive, so I don't think I'll be adding it to my shelves any time soon. The toy rolls around with bump-and-go action while its dome lights change color and it makes a plinking noise. It was also available in a slightly -- slightly -- more common silver version. I love 'em both. The toy was reproduced by two companies, Mike's Toy House and Osaka Tin Toy Institute; both have minor variations but are, for the most part, true to the original. These repros aren't cheap, though, and usually pull in a few hundred bucks. Still, that's a fraction of what an original costs.

9. Atomic Jet Gun (Crescent, 1950s)

A very cool British water gun, clearly based -- at least roughly -- on the Hiller Atom Jet water pistol here in the states. Slightly more stylized, though, with a few extra swoops thrown in for good measure. A tough toy to find, especially in this condition. 

Friday, August 14, 2009

Space Toys Online: Smith House Robot Auction #75

Smith House Toy and Auction Company has posted the first batch of preview pictures for their October sale (#75) of robots and space toys.

Images © Smith House Toys.

The preview represents only a small portion of the collection of Alan Rosen, a top-tier collector who, in a short amount of time, managed to acquire nearly every golden-age toy robot produced. What's more, Rosen obsessed over quality, and each toy is in impeccable condition, often with its original box. (He's actually nicknamed "Mr. Mint.") 

Smith House has yet to finalize a date for the auction, which is actually Part 2 of the Rosen sale. Part 1 (auction #74), featuring his amazing collection of space ships, rockets, futuristic vehicles, and other related toys -- as well as a few extra robots -- was held in May of this year. 

For more information and photos, or to order an auction catalog -- which is practically guaranteed to become one of the top robot reference books -- visit the Smith House web site at

I tell ya, it's a good time to be a robot collector. Or a bad one, if you also happen to care about paying rent, eating, and generally getting by with more than goose eggs in your savings account. But why obsess over unimportant details? It's all about the toys, right? Right.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dan Dare Space Pistol (Lone Star / 1950s / U.K. / 5.5 x 7.5 inches)

One of the most interesting looking guns to come out of the 1950s was the Dan Dare Space Pistol, which was a tie-in with the United Kingdom's leading science fiction hero.

The ray gun's design was, at the time, wholly original; its angular fins and concentric circles made it look almost like a space ship. It was one of the larger space guns, and its die-cast construction lent it a nice heft. I can only imagine how fun it must have been to play with it as a kid. (Though I can say with authority that playing with it as an adult is a helluva lot of fun.)

I've always liked this toy's paint scheme. The whole thing is done in red, and then silver is applied by an air brush to highlight the gun's contours. It's a nice effect, and one I've never seen on any other toy from that period. (It was also released in blue with silver accents.)

The Space Pistol fired rolls of paper caps, which were loaded underneath the top sight. Smoke exited the front of the barrel.

Lone Star would go on to reuse the gun's design a couple different times, and there's at least one plastic version that came out of Hong Kong in the late Sixties. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Robots On Display: Robots Among Us at Windsor's Community Museum

Anyone living in Canada, or planning a trip there, might want to stop by Windsor's Community Museum in Windsor, Ontario, to check out their Robots Among Us exhibit. It features just a sampling of collector Darryl Dupuis' vintage and new space toys, and provides an excellent overview of the toys and their history.

A portion of the exhibit. Photos by Darryl Dupuis. (Via Alphadrome)

The display will be up through January, though I suggest contacting the museum before traveling out there. The museum can be reached via their web site at

To find out more about Darryl and the exhibit, check out the following:
WEBSITE: The Robot Nut (
ARTICLE: The Windsor Star. "Robots From the 50s, 60s Amaze Modern Kids" (August 7, 2009)
VIDEO: The Windsor Star. "Robots From the 50s, 60s Amaze Modern Kids" (August 7, 2009)
VIDEO: Robots Among Us

Sadly, I live nowhere near Windsor, so I can't make it to the museum. If anyone happens to go, feel free to write up a post and take some photos, and I'll run them both as a guest blog entry. (Nope, no pay, just fame and glory for your endeavors.)