Playing Cold War: A Distant Early Warning Radar Station Toy by Masudaya

May 10, 2023

Playing Cold War: A Distant Early Warning Radar Station Toy by Masudaya

This interactive tin toy is a remarkable relic of the Cold War and one of the most unusual items I've had in stock. 

It was designed as a distant early warning station, complete with a radar “scope” showing the silhouettes of a moving planes, as well as a rotating radar dish and blinking lights, and morse code “signal key” that could be tapped out with a buzzing sound.

Red and white paper tag with morse code message in black and the instructions "tap out message in morse code".

The toy was made by the famed Masudaya firm of Tokyo, which was founded in 1923 and became the leading producer of battery and mechanical-operated toys during the post-war period ( This toy has been tested and is only partially functional, with two of the lights and the rotating wheel of plane silhouettes not working at present, possibly due to loose connections. it is nevertheless a lovely example, and rare in the original box.

Photograph of an old box lid with a multicolour illustration of a white boy with blonde hair sitting at a control panel and wearing headphones. The text reads, "Battery Operated Distant Early Warning Radar Station."

Though early warning radar systems had been in use since Britain’s deployment of Chain Home in 1938, the post-war threat of nuclear bombers led to the development of increasingly sophisticated long-range systems, particularly to monitor activity over the Arctic. The most successful of these was the DEW Line, which was constructed primarily in Canada’s far north, with additional stations in Alaska, Greenland, and Iceland. It went on-line in 1957 but quickly became semi-obsolete as the nuclear threat shifted from bombers to ICBMs, though it continued to operate until the early 1990s to provide an early warning of airborne invasion forces that might have proceeded a missile strike by several hours. The militarisation of the Canadian Arctic had significant effects on Canadian politics, and resulted in increased government interference in the lives of the Inuit as well as serious environmental damage.

Simplified map of North America showing three different early warning radar lines, including the DEW Line at the top across the Arctic Circle.

This toy was probably inspired by DEW, which was the only “distant” early warning radar at the time. Though the toy is undated it was probably sold in the late 1950s or early 1960s, given the short period during which distant early warning radar was of military significance. Work at these stations would have involved fairly dull duties, monitoring radar screens for the start of World War III in an isolated and harsh environment, and it’s strangely charming that someone chose to produce a colourful toy based on what must have been one of the more demoralising jobs in the Air Force.

For more about this toy, or to purchase it, visit its page in our shop.  You might also be interested in our stock of rare books on engineering and technology.