The bricks that build
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Date: 06 September, 2007

 

 

'The name LEGO, a contraction of the Danish 'leg godt', meaning 'play well', also means 'I assemble' in Latin.'

LEGO is 75 years old this year. Andrew Chapman fits everything together

Bacon, pastries, the fables of Hans Christian Andersen are some of the cultural legacies Denmark has given to the world.

Another is the toy brick system LEGO, and its little interlocking pieces of plastic must have passed through the little hands of a huge percentage of children (and indeed their fathers) across Europe and beyond.

The company was founded by carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen, born in 1891, who in 1916 bought a small woodworking shop in Billund which had been founded 20 years previously.

After the setbacks of a serious fire in the 1920s and then the depression of that era, he rebuilt the shop and started making wooden pull toys and piggy banks in 1932, as well as yo-yos for a while when they were first in fashion.

In 1934 he gave his growing business the name LEGO, a contraction of the Danish 'leg godt', meaning 'play well' (it also means 'I assemble' in Latin). In the 75 years since, the firm has grown to become the fifth largest toy manufacturer in the world.

Plastic

In 1937, Christiansen's son Godtfred (born in 1920) starting making models for the business, and in the 1940s switched to the new material of plastic.

Among their products was a plastic truck that could be taken apart and put back together again; the company meanwhile had grown to 50 employees.

In 1949, they made their first plastic bricks, called 'Automatic Binding Bricks' - far from being their own invention, however, these were inspired by the 'Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Bricks' designed by a British inventor. In 1953, the term 'LEGOP bricks' was first used.

At that time plastic toys were still regarded as inferior to those made of wood, but Godtfred, taking an increasing role in the management of the firm, persisted, and thought of the broader concept of using the bricks as an expandable toy system.

The interlocking bricks that we know and love today were developed under his reign in 1958, the same year that his father died.

In 1959, the products first appeared in the UK, and the company also set up its 'Futura' division to develop new ideas - the company has been known for innovation ever since, including the use of LEGO bricks in team-building and idea generation for businesses.

Motors

In the 1960s, Godtfred introduced the first LEGO train set, as well as electric motors, which later evolved into the gears and cogs of the 1970s' LEGO TECHNIC series; the larger DUPLO series aimed at the less dextrous hands of smaller children was also introduced in the 1960s.

A third innovation of this era was the company going beyond toy shops and setting up the LEGOLAND theme park in Denmark. In the 1970s, meanwhile, the company introduced LEGO figurines, adding elements of roleplay and story to the way in which the materials could be played with.

In the 1980s and the 1990s, the TECHNIC series continued to develop, and further theme parks were opened in California and Britain, with another in Germany in 2002.

The big development of the 90s was LEGO MINDSTORMS, a range of robot construction sets featuring their own simple programming language - after much popular clamour, mainly from adult 'geeks' building all manner of projects, the series was relaunched in 2006.

The company continues to innovate, and remains in the family under the ownership of Ole Kirk's grandson Kjeld.

Visit www.lego.com to find out more