Model-making is as old as civilization. Scale models of buildings, boats, and furniture were buried in tombs of ancient Egyptians to represent possessions the dead took into the next world. Many ancient models survived in the tombs while the original objects did not; these have given historians an understanding of what life in ancient civilizations was like. During the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), French prisoners of war carved beautiful model warships from wood scraps; these models are so detailed that they have become documents of warfare and ships lost at sea. They are also highly prized today among antique collectors.
During the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, inventors of new tools, machines, artworks, and other objects began by building models of their ideas. Industrial technology was found to have its own beauty, and large machines like locomotives were admired and copied in miniature. Early in the twentieth century model ships and airplanes were sold in kits. Balsa wood pieces were machine-cut to fit together easily and could be painted and rigged like the originals, although they were fragile. In the 1920s, some firms produced scale models of their products out of metal and wood as promotional models. Citroen, the French car manufacturer, produced delightful models that are now valued collectibles.
World War II moved modeling into a full-scale industry and hobby for two reasons. First, plastics were invented and perfected during the years before and during the war. Their versatility made them ideal for mass-produced model kits. Second, the machines of the war stimulated the public's interest in modeling. Slim fighters and heavy bombers intrigued many hobbyists who saw the real aircraft flying overhead on the way to war. The exploits of navy ships, both small and large, in the Pacific also fired imaginations. When soldiers and sailors returned home, they had more time and money for recreation, including building models of the machines they knew so well. Monogram Models introduced its first kits of warships in 1945.
The returning war veterans were also able to afford the automobiles that rolled off Detroit assembly lines; they also built models of the cars they owned—and the ones the dreamed of. In 1951, Revell introduced its first all-plastic model kit of an early automobile: a classic 1910 Maxwell, in which the driver was a scaled-down version of radio comedian Jack Benny. By the mid-1950s, more detailed kits and models that could be customized appeared. By the 1960s scale modeling was a full-fledged hobby with thousands of models covering hundreds of subjects. By 2000, the scale-model industry had produced more automobiles than all the automotive giants of Detroit combined.
In the 1960s, the scale-model industry expanded into ancient history and science fiction. Models of dinosaurs that once roamed the earth, monsters like Godzilla, superheroes like Superman, television characters like the Lone Ranger, and celebrities like Elvis Presley were mass-produced in scale form. The scale-model manufacturers also provided outlets for the public's interest in the Space Race during the 1960s, and models of the newest spacecraft were often on the hobby store shelves before the real-life vessel had taken flight. Fantasy followed here, too, with models of starships and intergalactic craft that have flown on television and in the movies. As techniques for precision casting of true-color parts continued to improve, scale models became important teaching tools. Detailed anatomical figures that can be snapped apart and reassembled are members of many classrooms, as just one example.