A Brief History of LEGO Toys
LEGO is easily one of the most popular educational toys in the world, but most kids are too busy having fun to notice they’re learning! Of course, LEGO isn’t just for kids. Folks of all ages love collecting and building with LEGO.
Featuring a practically unlimited number of ways to build, create and play, LEGO has been a top toy for decades. But LEGO’s development wasn’t always easy. The history of LEGO is filled with major risks, sudden setbacks and seemingly impossible dreams. Here’s a look at how these little blocks grew to have such a big impact on children and adults around the world.
The Humble Beginnings of a Master Craftsman
The year was 1932. The place was the small village of Billund, Denmark. A master carpenter named Ole Kirk Christiansen (also spelled Kristiansen among other variations) owned a small carpentry shop. Aided by his 12-year-old son Godfred, Ole Kirk mainly made wooden stepladders and ironing boards.
Until one day when Ole Kirk decided to also made wood blocks. Simple, non-interlocking wooden blocks had already been a popular toy for hundreds of years. Compared to stepladders and ironing boards, wood blocks are very simple to make, so Christiansen decided they’d be an easy addition to their product line. Plus, he liked children’s building toys.
The Family Business Gets an Iconic Name
By 1934, Christiansen and son had a thriving business on their hands. But they didn’t yet have a name for the company. After some brainstorming, they settled on the name LEGO. This was a contraction of the Danish phrase “Leg Godt,” which translates to “play well.”
Over the next decade, LEGO continued to grow and thrive. They expanded their product line to include wooden ducks, clothes hangers and a variety of toys. By 1948, LEGO employed over 50 employees.
A New Machine and a Shift in Business
LEGO had always been an innovative company. They were quick to respond to the market and adjust their products accordingly. But even though this was a company not afraid to try new ideas, they made a decision in 1947 which seemed downright radical.
The company purchased a plastic injection-molding machine, which was a new and relatively unknown invention. In fact, LEGO was the first Danish company to own this type of device. The sudden interest in plastic was a big surprise. After all, LEGO owed practically everything to wooden toys and crafts, and now they were exploring ways to build with plastic? Many felt it was a needless risk.
After all, what would they even build? For inspiration they turned to a British toy called the Kiddiecraft Self-Locking Building Blocks. These brick-shaped plastic toys had pegs on the top and hollowed-out bottoms.
The LEGO team made some adjustments to size and increased the overall precision. Then they began manufacturing their new, improved version of the Kiddiecraft blocks in 1949. Dubbed the Automatic Binding Bricks, these new toys went on to make virtually no impression on consumers whatsoever.
Part of it was a design issue. While LEGO’s version of the plastic blocks was better than the British version, the blocks still suffered from structural issues. Namely, the bricks didn’t have strong enough tubes. So any creations built with the blocks tended to fall apart pretty easily.
Plus, the general public wasn’t very familiar with the idea of plastic blocks. They generally wanted wooden blocks. But the dismal sales of the Automatic Binding Blocks weren’t a great concern to LEGO. After all, they were producing over 200 different types of plastic toys, including plastic fish and sailors. LEGO continued to make a wide variety of toys and didn’t give the failed Binding Blocks much thought.
The Automatic Binding Block Becomes a LEGO Brick
In 1953, Godtfred Christiansen was the Junior Managing Director of LEGO. He was also interested in taking a second look at the Automatic Binding Blocks. He believed a great toy existed somewhere within those blocks, but additional work needed to be done. The first decision was to change the cumbersome name. “Automatic Binding Block” was out and “LEGO bricks” was in.
But stability issues still held the product back. In 1958, LEGO patented the stud and coupling system for their bricks. This includes a reinforced hollow tube which allowed pieces to fix together securely yet also be removed without requiring special tools.
Customer began to take notice. Unlike wooden blocks, these plastic LEGO bricks could be used to create elaborate structures which seemed to defy gravity. Plus, the uniform design meant there was no limit to how many bricks you could use together.
An Unfortunate Loss Within the Company
Unfortunately, 1958 was also the year LEGO founder Ole Kirk Christiansen passed away, just as his most famous invention was beginning to find an audience. His son Godtfred Christiansen took over as CEO of the company. Having grown up in the company, he took immediate steps towards realizing his father’s vision.
Godtfred created the LEGO System of Play. This was a toy line consisting of 28 LEGO sets and eight vehicles. While these sets were popular, they were hardly the core of the business. LEGO was still a company mainly known for making wooden toys.
Another Unexpected Tragedy and a Change in Direction
In 1960, a massive warehouse fire wiped out almost all of LEGO’s wooden toys. This was a huge setback which potentially meant the end of the company. Godtfred Christiansen was faced with a tough choice. He could attempt to restart the line of wooden toys, which would require a ton of upfront costs, or he could change direction and focus entirely on the plastic LEGO brick sets.
Even though the LEGO bricks weren’t the company’s top seller, Godtfred didn’t have much of a choice. Committing to the plastic bricks was really the only option which was possible financially. So the company put their entire future into a single basket – one made from interlocking plastic bricks.
The Dawn of LEGO
In 1964, LEGO introduced sets as we’re familiar with the concept today. Each set included all the necessary bricks as well as instructions for creating a specific model. Early sets were relatively simple stores and vehicles.
As a company, LEGO is a big believer in getting things right the first time. The brick design created in 1958 is still in use today. That means a set you can buy in a store is 100% compatible with a set from over 50 years ago!
Although the public had rejected the initial version of the toy, by the 60s they welcomed these bricks with open arms. LEGO spread from Denmark to Sweden, Switzerland, Lebanon, France, Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom. By 1973, the arrived in America. By 2015, LEGO sets were available in over 140 countries worldwide.
Licensed Characters Change the Game
LEGO sets started small. They were mainly familiar scenes from small towns. But as the toy grew in popularity, the sets began to expand their scope.
Castles were introduced in 1978. A year later, Space sets were released. Pirates were one of the central themes for sets in 1989. Western LEGOS were released in 1996.
But LEGO sales reached out of this universe in 1999 when the first Star Wars themed sets were introduced. This was LEGO’s first licensed product, but certainly not their last. Licensed sets allowed LEGO to reach two powerful markets: LEGO fans as well as fans of the specific license.
Big-name licenses have been a major part of LEGO ever since. Aside from Star Wars, LEGO licenses have included Harry Potter, the Avengers, the DC Universe, Ghostbusters, the Simpsons, Jurassic Park and more.
Plus, LEGO has created their own universe as well. 2014’s The LEGO Movie grossed over $257 million while also introducing several notable original characters such as WyldStyle and Benny the Astronaut. Additionally, the Ninjago TV show and movies introduced a whole new world of original characters. Of course, all the characters from the various TV shows and movies are also available in LEGO form to play with.
The Introduction of the LEGO MiniFig
While the LEGO bricks are a key part of the toy, most LEGO fans will tell you the sets just feel incomplete without the LEGO mini-figure, or “MiniFig.” These little LEGO people populate the LEGO worlds. They’re such an iconic part of LEGO that most people are surprised to learn they weren’t actually created until 1978.
LEGO sets were already pretty popular worldwide when LEGO designer Jens Nygaard Knudsen began work on the first mini-figure. He felt that the LEGO world of buildings and vehicles was too empty. Characters needed to inhabit these places.
Designing the mini-figure took Knudsen over 50 tries but eventually he created the perfect blend between blocky and human looks. The original figures could hold items in their hands as well as bend their arms and legs. Plus, the bottom of their feet could attach to a LEGO brick.
These original mini-figures weren’t particularly expressive. Still, they were an instant hit. The first minifig released was a police officer included with LEGO Set 600. Other basic figures soon followed in the Town, Space and Castle sets.
The figures then got a major upgrade in 1989 with the release of LEGO Pirates. These Pirate MiniFigs had beards, eye patches, a variety of expressions and other intricate details. This trend continues today. Now you can create a virtually unlimited number of unique figures using the basic building blocks of limbs, a head and a torso. Characters from practically every era and genre are available.
Licensed characters are also incredibly popular. The first licensed character mini-figure was Luke Skywalker released in 1999. He was also the first LEGO MiniFig to not have the traditional yellow skin color found in the non-licensed characters.
All licensed characters are either white or black, depending on the skin tone of the character, while all original LEGO characters are yellow. The only exception to this are The Simpsons, which are both LEGO yellow as well as the same color as their TV show counterparts.
Today you can find Batman, Harry Potter, Groot, Slimer and other popular characters across a wide range of popular culture. Rare MiniFigs can be worth tens of thousands of dollars! Recognizing the popularity of the MiniFigs, in 2010 LEGO decided to release individual packs of figures. Now collectors could buy figures without also having to buy sets.
The Importance of High Quality
LEGO prides itself on precision and quality. Each brick is made from ABS plastic, which is non-toxic and very resistant to warping and damage over time. Brick molding is only done at one of two plants in Denmark and Switzerland. Approximately 20 billion bricks are made each year, which averages out to about 600 per second.
Uniformity is key. Every LEGO set from the motorized Technic sets to the toddler-friendly DUPLO can effortlessly connect. This allows the toys to grow with kids as their interests and abilities change over time.
All bricks are built with a specific degree of “clutch power.” This means the bricks snap together easily but can also be pulled apart. At the same time, they’re unable to fall apart on their own. This precise level of tolerance is the secret to building freestanding structures.
LEGO can achieve this level of design control because they use small molds. Each mold is equipped with sensors to detect changes in pressure and temperature. Plus, human experts scrutinize each piece for abnormalities in color and thickness. Even wilder, in order to keep official LEGO molds from falling into the hands of the competition, all worn-out molds are buried in building foundations across Denmark.
From the early days of his business, Ole Kirk Christiansen took great joy in providing well-made household items for adults and fun toys for kids. A chance purchase on a new machine turned out to be a completely life-changing experience.
The history of LEGO is actually tinged by quite a bit of sadness. A creator who died before he could see his vision fully realized. A devastating fire which almost wiped out the company. But LEGO has always been about building a better future.
Today, they have a worldwide empire of toys, stores, amusement parks, movies and more. But no matter how big they’ve grown, the core values of Christiansen have remained. Every LEGO brick is designed to be an important part of a larger system which teaches kids and adults about the power of creativity and imagination.