Monday, March 22, 2010

For Sale the the Highest Bidder: The History of Space

For anyone interested in our various, early sojourns up into the deep, dark sky, check out the online auction catalogue for Bonham's Space History Sale. It features letters and autographs from astronauts and other luminaries; models of early space craft (!); blueprints and technical drawings; and tons of promotional artwork and photographs. There are even -- hold on to your hats -- pieces of equipment from the various ships and missions that were part of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Yes, you can own really cool, historic stuff that went into space.

All artwork via Bonham's

You know, I love space toys, but I also love memorabilia from the days of the actual space race. It was a time when fantasy was transformed into reality, when people moved from ray guns and flying saucers to approach vectors and landing procedures for visiting the moon.

The moon!

An amazing auction. Now, I'm sorry, I'm getting a little choked up...

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Common Toys, Rare Boxes: I'm Baffled

This isn't what you're thinking: I know that vintage boxes are rarer than the toys they held. Cheap cardboard can't stand up to the ravages of time like sturdy plastic, tin, and steel. On top of that, most kids just tossed the boxes with absolutely no thought whatsoever for the feelings of future collectors.

Little bast--! Ahem. That is to say, "Little dickens!"

No, what I'm really thinking about is how the ratio of relatively common ray guns to their boxes is much different than the ratio of relatively common robots to their boxes. That is to say, of the common robots that appear on eBay, many have their boxes. Whereas, of the common ray guns that appear on eBay, very few of them have their boxes.

Case in point: Chief Robot Man. Not too uncommon a robot, and with a box that I see more than a few times every year. Same goes for the W robot, the Battery Operated Planet Robot, the Battery Operated High-Wheel Robot, the wind up Easel Back Robot, and the little, red Yoshiya Jupiter Robot. If you decide to only buy these toys if they're mint in box, you won't have too much trouble, or spend too much extra money.

Conversely, the Buck Rogers XZ-31 Rocket Pistol, a toy that is always available -- always -- almost never has its box. Same goes for the Hubley Atomic Disintegrator, the Wyandotte ray gun, the Ideal 3 Color Gun... The list goes on and on.

I don't know -- is it my imagination? Am I just dreaming? I haven't conducted a proper investigation, and to tell you the truth, I don't plan on rolling up my sleeves and really digging into the problem. It's a mystery of the hobby, I guess.

Anyone have any thoughts on the matter?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Great Space Toy Blog: Moonbase Central

I was recently hipped to a blog called Moonbase Central (, which focuses on old Project Sword toys, as well as a wide variety of vintage, (mostly) plastic space toys from (mostly) the U.K., Hong Kong, the U.S., and Canada. It's a great site with tons of information and wonderful photos. I've only spent about 40 minutes looking through it so far, and I've already found answers to a number of long-standing questions I've had about toys in my own collection (or toys I've thought about buying). Now that's a good blog!

Moonbase Central also features articles on related space-age toys, books, magazine articles, and ephemera, as well as actual Gemini/Apollo era goings on within the real space community. It provides some nice context for the toys and helps paint a picture of what was happening in society and pop culture as these toys were being produced.

For those who don't know, Project Sword was a British series of toys produced in the late Sixties by Century 21 Merchandising (connected with Gerry Anderson's Century 21 Productions), as well as a series of comic strips and text stories, and various other related items. Similar toys were also produced by a bunch of companies out of Hong Kong -- including a couple toys that remain popular among collectors who have never even heard of Project Sword. (Like... ahem... myself, until fairly recently. Hey, I'm young, cut me some slack!)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Strato Gun (Futuristic Products Co. / 1953 / U.S. / 4 x 8.5 inches)

I think what I love most about the Strato Gun is that it really looks like the prop from some great, old science fiction adventure flick. It's fancifully futuristic, but at the same time, it kind of looks like it means business. If your business is blasting BEMs from Betelgeuse.

The Strato Gun is made from chrome-plated, die-cast metal, and it has a pleasing, solid heft -- even in an adult's hand. The toy fires rolls of caps, a simple enough ammunition used by not only junior spacemen, but also junior cowboys, junior pirates, junior cops, and junior soldiers. If you were armed and underage in the Fifties and Sixties, you were probably packing a cap gun.

The body and barrel of the gun flip upwards, revealing the cap mechanism just above the handle.

The toy was originally available in both chrome and matte finishes. (There's also a plastic Dan Dare water pistol made in the U.K. that borrows heavily from the Strato Gun's design.) The chrome version comes up most often, which I think is pretty good since I like it more than its (literally) duller brother.

This ray gun and I go back quite a ways. See, when I first started collecting, Strato Guns appeared on eBay with some regularity -- maybe once every month or two -- and prices were fairly consistent. Consequently, I never bothered bidding on the gun, instead holding my money for whatever rare pieces might pop up. My attitude was, "I can get one whenever I want, so for now I'll go after all the tough stuff."

One day, I was visiting the collector and dealer Justin Pinchot in sunny California. He presented me with a table full of guns for sale, including a dead mint Strato Gun. After giving it some thought, I decided on two guns: the extremely rare and utterly beautiful Renwal Planet Jet (which remains one of my all-time favorites), and a fairly common -- though extremely cool looking -- Ideal 3-Color Futurama Gun. To be fair, I didn't know whether the Futurama gun was common or not; I was new to the game and hadn't yet gained any real perspective.

Regardless, I passed on the Strato Gun because, hey, I could get one any time I wanted. Unless, of course, the supply dried up. Which it did. And unless the price climbed to about six times what I could have bought it for. Which it did.

Fast forward about four or five years. I was down in Adamstown, PA, with my friend, Karl Tate, and my girlfriend, shooting a profile of the Toy Robot Museum and its curator, Joe Knedlhans. We had taken a break for the day and decided to hit Morphy's auction house -- they also have cases full of toys being sold on consignment and you never know what you're going to find.

I still didn't own a Strato Gun because I refused to pay more than I was originally prepared to spend all those years ago. Yep, I can be stubborn like that.

I was wandering around, checking out the toys, when from a few cases over my girlfriend lets out a little yell. I rush to see what she's found and discover, sitting on a shelf and gleaming in the overhead light, a shiny Strato Gun. My pulse raced a bit as I stooped down to check out the price tag; it went into overdrive when I saw that the gun cost pretty much what I remembered it costing a few years earlier. It wasn't quite as clean as the one Justin offered me, but it was close enough. About five minutes later, I walked out the door with my newly purchased prize.

There was definitely a feeling of closure when I finally stuck the toy on my shelf; I had my Strato Gun, and a hole in my collection had finally been filled. It also stands as a powerful reminder: Every time I get bummed out about missing an auction or letting a toy slip through my fingers, all I have to do it glance at the Strato Gun and I remember that everything comes up again, and nothing's more important to a collector than patience.

Sing it, Axl! "Just a little patience/Oooh yeah/Just a little patience..."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Guest Column! X-505 Flying Saucer (Nomura, 1962)

There's no denying that flying saucers played a major role in science-fiction toys of the Fifties and Sixties. There's also no denying that I don't know much about them. So I'm bringing in a ringer: Donald Conner. I'm proud to announce that Don's going to write a semi-regular column on these great old space toys, one that draws on not only his vast collection of flying saucers, but also his deep reserves of knowledge and research. If there's a man for this mission, it's Don! Take it away, buddy...
-- Doc.

By Donald Conner

In the 1950’s, you had your two basic space ship designs: the rocket and the flying saucer.

We earthlings knew all about rockets because we invented them. For years, science-fiction art and movies depicted the rockets; they were curvaceous, sexy things of beauty in a decidedly art deco mode. And by the 1950s, we were already sending them up towards space -- the dream of putting a man on the moon would soon become a reality.

Flying saucers, on the other hand, were steeped in mystery and urban legend. While people wrote about rockets in science journals, saucers were fodder for the tabloids and the pulps. These were the aliens' vehicles, terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. The idea of a flying saucer sent the mind racing: "Are they real?" "How do they work?" "Who built them?" "Are they friend or foe?" Imagine the cosmic knowledge that could be learned by one trip in a flying saucer! Combined with their unfathomable menace, they were like outlaw bikers and the key to the universe, all rolled into one.

While other kids might have been afraid of a saucer landing on their lawn, I would have asked Marvin the Martian if I could take her for a spin! A rocket could only follow a straight line, but it was a well-known fact that a flying saucer could turn on a dime and zip in the opposite direction in an instant -- it really handles, baby! It was a cross between a Lotus Elan and a hovercraft, the perfect intergalactic sports craft.

Some of Don's flying saucers.

And that's why I collect flying saucers. Once you decide to collect vintage robots and space toys, you can quickly discover that the space toys are almost overwhelming in their variety. Space tanks, flying saucers, rockets, space cars, lunar landers, space capsules, and space stations -- all have been produced by the great toy manufacturers from Japan, America, Great Britain, France, and Germany during the classic period from the mid-1950s to the late-1960s. Faced with that, I had to find a focus, and I was drawn to the flying saucers like a divining rod drawn to the Pacific Ocean. Battery operated, friction, and wind-up -- these toys whirred, spun, bumped, turned, almost but not quite fell off the table, rose and hovered! And they did it while flashing, sparking, buzzing, and beeping their way to a coveted status among kids back in the day -- and collectors today!

To launch this column, I'd like to talk about the X-505 Flying Saucer, by Nomura of Japan. It's one of my personal favorites. Sure, it's an extremely rare piece, but I also love it for its looks and its status as a trend setter.

The X-505, a true beauty!

Catalog dated to 1962, the X-505 is one of the earliest of the friction saucers to have a central, clear dome. Another Japanese company, Masudaya, had been making friction saucers some years prior, but their design had more of a fuselage swooping back between two elongated fins. And a company called Yoshiya had been making battery operated saucers with central domes and pilots as early as 1960. But Nomura took it a step forward with the X-505, introducing the tin, lithographed cockpit and pilot to the friction saucer. Other toy manufacturers would soon be copying the X-505 formula of tin-litho pilot's head and cockpit, embossed headlights, two fins, and sparking window.

Note the lithographed cockpit and pilot underneath that perfect dome.

Sparks would light inside the four elongated, red windows behind the pilot.

The X-505's mechanism is fairly simple. The inner flywheel acts as a motor for this bad boy -- rev the toy up by swiping the wheels across the floor and then set it down and watch the sparks fly as it zooms forward!

Adding an X-505 to your collection is no easy trick -- they rarely come up for sale, and I do mean rarely. But if you do come across one, take a close look at the dome. Nomura used a much thinner plastic on their friction saucer domes and it cracks easily.

I bought mine years ago in a Smith House auction, it was the one piece I wanted very badly out of that auction and at the time I didn’t have a complete sense of just how rare it is. Luckily, robots were getting much more attention than saucers in those days and I managed to snag this little gem. In the 5 years since that auction I haven’t seen another boxed example come up for sale anywhere. In my opinion, the box itself is one of the best flying saucer boxes eve. The art work really sizzles with its emphasis on the sparking engine. Whenever I see it I can't help thinking the same artwork could have been easily used on a brick of firecrackers.

So you can see why the X-505 was such a trend setter. It's a real dazzler, a space vehicle with hot-rod good looks and a forward-looking design.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Frederik Pohl's Blog!

Frederik Pohl is an award-winning science-fiction writer (the Gateway series, Man Plus, The Space Merchants, etc.) whose professional career goes back to the late Forties. He's edited SF magazines and anthologies (including the fantastic "Star Science Fiction" series), worked as a book agent for other SF authors (such as Arthur C. Clarke), and was one of the founders of both the Futurians and the Hydra Club. In short, Pohl's a legend, a dominant force in shaping science fiction's development for more than 70 years.

So you can imagine my glee when I discovered that he maintains a blog! It's called "The Way The Future Blogs" (, which is a play off the title of his 1978 autobiography, The Way The Future Was (a fantastic read, by the way).

Pohl uses his blog to reminisce about his career, the authors he's known, science fiction's history, and the events that shaped his life. It's a treasure trove for anyone who admires the author's work, as well as fans of science fiction in general.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Space Explorer Gun (Palmer Plastic / Early 1950s / U.S. / 4 x 6 inches)

I first discovered the Space Explorer Gun while flipping through the pages of Gene Metcalf's excellent book, Ray Gun. And even though it isn't the fanciest ray gun ever produced, I wanted it from the moment I saw it.

In this case, it's all about the entire package -- the tight, sweet display of ray gun, dart, and wonderfully primitive space art. Of course, the flimsy cardboard backing rarely survived the decades and the dart was probably the first thing to get lost, so I never held out much hope of actually owning a complete set. Which is why I was so shocked to find one on eBay early on in my collecting. I bid pretty hard, but apparently no one else was interested because I snagged it for next to nothing. Saint Jude might be the patron saint of lost causes, but he ain't got nothin' on eBay.

The Space Explorer Gun is pretty simple, but there's something quaint about the funky little lightning bolt and shooting star designs. I also love the two-tone look, which I never knew about until I had the gun in my hands. Photo books are fun, but they never tell the whole story, which is why I always recommend that collectors try to see other people's toys whenever possible. (Try to get an invitation first, though. The Attic of Astounding Artifacts does not condone peeping in through other collectors' windows.)

As far as I know, this particular dart is unique to the Space Explorer Gun; other darts had explosive tips of various types, but none were designed quite like this one. I like that the display card proclaims: "Explosive Dart... SAFE AND HARMLESS." Because nothing inspires feelings of safety like the word "explosive." But these kinds of mixed messages appeared all the time on the packaging for old space guns, and frankly, I think the naivete was part of their charm.

A cap would be placed in the small opening. The spring-loaded suction cup acted as a firing pin.

When this toy arrived in the mail, I was surprised to discover a second dart. The toy was never sold that way, so I tucked it away, figuring I'd sell it to someone who had the gun. Then, one day, my friend Don won the gun and display card -- but no dart. After chatting a bit, I decided to trade it to him -- for goods to be determined. He didn't have anything I wanted at the time, but he really needed to have the dart so I figured I'd just send it to him and worry about it later.

About six months after that, he did me a solid by hooking me up with a gun that by all rights belonged to him. He'd won it on eBay, I was the underbidder -- neither of us knew the other was bidding -- and after listening to me wax rhapsodic about the gun, he decided that it belonged in my collection. He wouldn't take no for an answer, and sold it to me for what he paid. (Which was only a dollar more than my high bid.)

Well! It was such a nice gesture on his part that I also absolved him of any lingering obligations relating to that Space Explorer dart -- it really was the least I could do, seeing as he didn't have to let me have the gun. In the end, we all win.

Once again, it's all about Toy Karma, guys and gals. Collecting can be cutthroat -- but it doesn't have to be. If we help each other out, we'll all end up with pretty sweet collections.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Space Water Pistol (Reliable / 1950s / CAN / 3.5 x 5.5 inches)

Another unnamed ray gun, this time a water pistol. Call it what you like, but with those deco swoops, spacey fins, and sweet curves, it's not a toy you're likely to forget.

Reliable, a Canadian company, pulled out all the stops, turning the basic water pistol into a work of art. I particularly like how the toy becomes a very Flash Gordon-esque rocket when looked at from above. Very clever!

The gun also features a compass, something I wish more toys included. You just can't go wrong with a compass. Not only does it look awesome, it provides some much needed functionality. After all, space men can't rescue alien princesses if they're lost in the woods!

Reliable's water pistol was available in the usual variety of colors. And take a look at the tip of the gun. Water pistols in the 1950s often featured brass tips. It's a nice touch, a mark of quality construction. Looks cool, too, right? Lots of vintage ray guns are missing this tip, so when shopping around for one, make sure it's complete.