History of Lego
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The History of Lego spans almost 100 years of the existence of a toy that grew from small wooden playthings in the early 20th century into the center of a vast market of plastic building bricks that dominated the world markets for decades. It is one of the oldest plastic toys in the world. Its manufacturing was started in Denmark, but was eventually replaced by factories throughout the world. Today it is one of the most successful toys and has remained an iconic brand with a loyal and continuing following. The traditional date for the first Lego blocks is 1947, and the toys have continued to be produced with little interruption since around that time.
The Lego Group began in the carpentry workshop of Ole Kirk Christiansen, in Billund, Denmark. In 1916, Christiansen purchased a woodworking shop in Billund which had been in business since 1895. The shop mostly helped construct houses and furniture, and had a small staff of apprentices. The workshop burned down in 1924 when a fire ignited some wood shavings. Ole Kirk constructed a larger workshop, and worked towards expanding his business even further. When the Great Depression hit, Ole Kirk had fewer customers and had to focus on smaller projects. He began producing miniature versions of his products as design aids. It was these miniature models of stepladders and ironing boards that inspired him to begin producing toys.
In 1932, Ole Kirk's shop started making wooden toys such as piggy banks, pull toys, cars and trucks and houses. The business was not very profitable because of the Great Depression. Farmers in the area sometimes traded food in exchange for his toys; Ole Kirk continued producing practical furniture in addition to toys in order to stay in business. In the mid-1930s, the yo-yo toy fad gave him a brief period of increased activity until it suddenly collapsed. To reduce waste, Ole Kirk used the leftover yo-yo parts as wheels for toy trucks. His son Godtfred began working for him, taking an active role in the company.
In 1934, Ole Kirk held a contest amongst his staff to name the company, offering a bottle of homemade wine as a prize. Christiansen was considering two names himself, "Legio" (with the implication of a "Legion of toys") and "Lego", a self-made contraction from the Danish phrase leg godt, meaning "play well." Later the Lego Group discovered that "Lego" can be loosely interpreted as "I put together" or "I assemble" in Latin. Ole Kirk selected his own name, Lego, and the company began using it on their products.
Following World War II, plastics became available in Denmark, and Lego purchased a plastic injection molding machine in 1947. One of the first modular toys to be produced was a truck that could be taken apart and re-assembled. In 1947, Ole Kirk and Godtfred obtained samples of interlocking plastic bricks produced by the company Kiddicraft. These "Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Bricks" were designed by Hilary Page. In 1939, he had applied for a patent on hollow plastic cubes with four studs on top (British Patent Nº.529,580) that allowed their positioning atop one another without lateral movement.. In 1944, Page applied an "Improvement to Toy Building Blocks" as an addition to the previous patent in which he describes a building system based on rectangular hollow blocks with 2X4 studs on top enabling the construction of walls with staggered rows and window openings. The addition was granted in 1947 as British Patent Nº 587,206. In 1949, the Lego Group began producing similar bricks, calling them "Automatic Binding Bricks." Lego bricks, then manufactured from cellulose acetate, were developed in the spirit of traditional wooden blocks that could be stacked upon one another but could be "locked" together. They had several round "studs" on top, and a hollow rectangular bottom. They would stick together, but not so tightly that they could not be pulled apart. In 1953, the bricks were given a new name: Lego Mursten, or "Lego Bricks."
Plastic products were not well received by customers initially, who preferred wooden or metal toys. Many of Lego's shipments were returned, following poor sales. In 1954, Godtfred had become the junior managing director of the Lego Group. Godtfred's conversation with an overseas buyer struck the idea of a toy "system", with many toys in a line of related products. Godtfred evaluated their available products, and saw the plastic bricks as the best candidate for such a "system". In 1955, Lego released the "Town Plan" as such a system, using the building bricks.
The building bricks were moderately received, but had some problems from a technical standpoint: their "locking" ability was limited, and they were not very versatile. In 1958 the bricks were improved with hollow tubes in the underside of the brick. This added support in the base, enabling much better locking ability and improved versatility. The company patented the new design, as well as several similar designs to avoid competition. Ole Kirk Christiansen died that same year, and Godtfred inherited leadership of the company.
Change to plastic bricks
Another warehouse fire struck the Lego Group in 1960, consuming most of the company's inventory of wooden toys. Godtfred decided that the plastic line was strong enough to abandon production of wooden toys. As a result, Godtfred's brothers Gerhardt (then head of wooden toys) and Karl Georg left the Lego company and began a separate company "Bilofix". By the end of the year, the staff of the Lego Group included more than 450 people.
In 1961, Lego wished to expand sales to North America, but did not have the logistical capabilities to do so. Lego made an arrangement allowing Samsonite to begin producing and selling Lego products in the United States and Canada.
1961 and 1962 saw the introduction of the first Lego wheels, an addition that expanded the potential for building cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles from Lego bricks. Also during this time, the Lego Group introduced toys specifically targeted towards the pre-school market.
In 1963, the material used to create Lego bricks, cellulose acetate (CA), was dropped in favor of more stable acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS plastic), which is still used today. ABS is non-toxic, is less prone to discolouration and warping, and is also more resistant to heat, acids, salt, and other chemicals than cellulose acetate. Samsonite manufacturing in North America did not switch at the same time, and still used some degree of cellulose acetate in its Lego products.
1964 was the first time that instruction manuals were included in Lego sets.
One of the LEGO Group's most successful series, the Lego train system, was first released in 1966. The original train sets included a 4.5-volt motor, battery box and rails; two years later, a 12-volt motor was introduced.
On 7 June 1968, the first Legoland Park was opened in Billund. This theme park featured elaborate models of miniature towns built entirely from Lego bricks. The three acre (12,000 m²) park attracted 625,000 visitors in its first year alone. During the next 20 years, the park grew to more than eight times its original size, and eventually averaged close to a million paying visitors per year. More than eighteen million Lego sets were sold in 1968.
In 1969, the Duplo system went on sale. This was a newly developed system, targeted towards younger children; Duplo bricks are much larger than Lego bricks, making them safer for very young children, but the two systems are compatible: Lego bricks can be fitted neatly onto Duplo bricks, making the transition to the Lego system easily made as children outgrow their Duplo bricks. The name Duplo comes from the Latin word duplus, which translates literally as double, meaning that a Duplo brick is exactly twice the dimension of a Lego building brick (2× height by 2× width by 2× depth = 8× the volume of a brick).
The 1960s were such a period of major growth for the Lego Group that by 1970, one of the biggest questions they faced was how best to manage and control its expanding market.
The coming decades marked considerable expansion into new frontiers of toy making and marketing. Lego began to target the female market with the introduction of furniture pieces and dollhouses in 1971. The Lego universe expanded its transportation possibilities with the addition of boat and ship sets, with hull pieces that actually floated, in 1972.
During this same period, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen's son, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, joined the managerial staff of the company, after earning business degrees in Switzerland and Denmark. One of Kjeld's first achievements with the company was the foundation of manufacturing facilities, as well as a research and development department that would be responsible for keeping the company's manufacturing methods up to date. Human figures with posable arms made an appearance in 1974 in "Lego family" sets, which went on to become the biggest sellers at the time; in the same year, an early version of the "minifigure" miniature Lego person was introduced, but it was not posable and had no face printed on its head. A Lego production plant was opened in Enfield, Connecticut in the United States.
"Expert Series" sets were first introduced in 1975, geared towards older, more experienced Lego builders. This line soon developed into the "Expert Builder" sets, released in 1977. These technical sets featured moving parts such as gears, differentials, cogs, levers, axles and universal joints, and permitted the construction of realistic models such as automobiles, with functional rack and pinion steering and lifelike engine movements. Finally, the Lego world came together in 1978 with the addition of the Lego "minifigure". These small Lego people have posable arms and legs, and a friendly smile. The figure was used in many varieties of Lego sets, allowing consumers to construct elaborate towns with buildings, roads, vehicles, trains, and boats, at the same scale, and populated with the smiling minifigure Lego citizens.
Another significant expansion to the Lego line occurred in 1979, with the creation of Lego Space sets. Astronaut minifigures, rockets, lunar rovers and spaceships populated this successful series. The Scala series debuted in this year as well, featuring jewelry elements marketed towards young girls. Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen became the president of Lego in this year; another decade concluded with Lego toys still going strong.
Lego bricks had always had a constructive potential that was seen by some educators as being an invaluable asset in helping children to develop creativity and problem-solving abilities. Since the 1960s, teachers had been using Lego bricks in the classroom for a variety of reasons. In 1980, the Lego Group established the Educational Products Department (eventually renamed Lego Dacta, in 1989), specifically to expand the educational possibilities of their toys. A packing and assembly factory opened in Switzerland, followed by another in Jutland, Denmark that manufactured Lego tires.
The second generation of Lego trains appeared in 1981. As before these were available in either 4.5 V (battery powered) or 12 V (mains powered), but a much wider variety of accessories were available, including working lights, remote-controlled points and signals, and decouplers.
The "Expert Builder" series matured in 1982, becoming the "Technic" series. August 13 of that year marked the Lego Group's 50th anniversary; the book 50 Years of Play was published to commemorate the occasion. In the following year, the Duplo system was expanded to include sets for even younger audiences, particularly infants; new sets included baby rattles and figures with adjustable limbs. The year after, Lego minifigure citizens gained a realm of knights and horses, with the introduction of the first Castle sets. Light & Sound sets made their appearance in 1985; these sets included a battery pack with electrical lights, buzzers, and other accessories to add another dimension of realism to Lego creations. Also that year, the Lego Group's educational division produced the Technic Computer Control, which was an educational system whereby Technic robots, trucks, and other motorized models could be controlled with a computer. Manaus, Brazil gained a Lego factory in this year, as well.
In 1984, the Technic line was expanded with the addition of pneumatic components.
In August 1988, 38 children from 17 different countries took part in the first Lego World Cup building contest, held in Billund. That same year, Lego Canada was established. The Lego line grew again in 1989 with the release of the Lego Pirates series, which featured a variety of pirate ships, desert islands and treasure; the series was also the first to depart from the standard minifigure smiling face to create an array of piratical characters. The Lego Group's Educational Products Department was renamed Lego Dakta in this year; the name is derived from the Greek word "didactic", which roughly means "the study of the learning process." MIT's Dr. Seymour Papert, from the Laboratory of Computer Learning, was named "Lego Professor of Learning Research," after his ongoing work in linking the Logo programming language with Lego products.
A new series designed for advanced builders was released in 1990. Three Model Team sets, including a race car and an off-road vehicle, featured a level of detail and realism not previously seen in any Lego series. Where Technic was mechanically accurate, Model Team was visually and stylistically accurate. The Lego Group became one of the top 10 toy companies in this year; it was the only toy company in Europe to be among the top 10. Legoland Billund had more than one million visitors in this year, for the first time in its history. The first-ever "Lego Professor of Business Dynamics," Xavier Gilbert, was appointed to an endowed chair at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland. Lego Malaysia was also established in 1990. In 1991, the Lego Group standardized its electrical components and systems; the Trains and Technic motors were made 9V to bring the systems into line with the rest of the Lego range.
Two Guinness records were set in 1992 using Lego products: A castle made from 400,000 Lego bricks, and measuring 4.45 meters by 5.22 meters, was built on Swedish television, and a Lego railway line 545 meters in length, with three locomotives, was constructed. Duplo was augmented with the addition of the Toolo line featuring a screwdriver, wrench, nuts and bolts; the Paradisa line, targeted towards girls, brought a variety of new pastel colors into the Lego system and focused around horses and a beach theme. 1993 brought a Duplo train and a parrot-shaped "brickvac" that could scoop Lego pieces up off the floor.
Early prototypes of the Lego minifigure had a variety of skin colors and facial expressions, but production designs used only a yellow skin color and standard smiling face. Lego Pirates in 1989 expanded the array of facial expressions by adding beards and eye patches. Soon the other themes caught on, ranging from sun glasses, lipstick, eyelashes, and so on. However, many of the older collectors resented the new look, saying they looked too "cartoon-ish" or "kiddy", and preferred the simplistic nature of the two eyes and smile. Nevertheless, from 1999 licensed series such as Lego Star Wars and Lego Harry Potter gave minifigures the personas of specific characters from their cinematic counterparts, but it was not until 2003, with the introduction of Lego Basketball, that the palette of skin tones broadened to include more lifelike colors.
In the late 1990s, the Lego Group brought out a series of new and specialized ranges aimed at particular demographics. The Slizers/Throwbots line, which preceded the now familiar Bionicle range, uses Technic pieces and specialist moldings to create a set of action figures for boys, while Belville is a more conventional line aimed at girls and featuring large posable figures like those in the Technic range. A "Lego 4 Juniors" group features 2-inch (51 mm) tall medium-sized figures ("medi-figure") without jointed arms, and longer legs than the classic Lego minifigure. In 2003, the Lego Group introduced a completely new system, Clikits, aimed at girls and consisting of customizable plastic jewelry and accessories. In 2004, Lego added the QUATRO brick, for ages 1–3. Much like Duplo, a Quatro brick is four times the dimension of a regular Lego brick, and is compatible with the Duplo brick. Also that year, they created the second line of Knights Kingdom themed product.
The late 1990s also saw the first products featuring licensed characters. In 1999, Star Wars Lego and Winnie the Pooh Duplo were released. These were followed by characters from Harry Potter to figures from other Steven Spielberg movies. Before this, Lego characters were always designed in-house, and lacked the strong characterisation of these licensed characters. A number of in-house characters after this point were strongly characterised with media utilisation and non-Lego System merchandising in mind, most notably Bionicle.
The LEGO Story
To celebrate the 80th anniversary of the inception of the brand LEGO, an animated short film titled 'The LEGO Story' was made by Lani Pixels. This short animated film depicted the struggles that Ole Kirk Christiansen and his son Godtfred Kirk Christiansen went through to make the company into a successful venture. The film shows the high ideals of Ole and the creative acumen of Godtfred, and their contribution towards the company and its growth. The LEGO Story highlights the problems that the father-son duo faced and how they tackled the obstacles to emerge victorious.
- Willy Horn Hansen. 50 Years of Play. The LEGO Group, 1982, p. 8.
- Henry Wiencek. The World of LEGO Toys. Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1987, p. 37.
- Henry Wiencek. The World of LEGO Toys. Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1987, p. 39.
- Willy Horn Hansen. 50 Years of Play. The LEGO Group, 1982, p. 15.
- Willy Horn Hansen. 50 Years of Play. The LEGO Group, 1982, p. 17.
- LEGO.com About Us – TimeLine 1932 – 1939
- Willy Horn Hansen. 50 Years of Play. The Lego Group, 1982, p. 25.
- "Brick Fetish". Brick Fetish. Retrieved 2013-02-13.
- "A History of Hilary 'Harry' Fisher Page, his lifes work and Kiddicraft". hilarypagetoys.com. 2008-07-13. Retrieved 2013-02-13.
- "The Automatic Binding Brick". Retrieved 12 March 2013.
- Schwartz, Nelson D. (5 September 2009). "Turning to Tie-Ins, Lego Thinks Beyond the Brick". The New York Times.
- Lego Group timeline
- Henry Wiencek, The World of LEGO Toys. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York, 1987. ISBN 0-8109-2362-9.
- LEGO Group, 50 Years of Play. Internal LEGO publication, 1982.
- Brickipedia, a comprehensive database of LEGO products and themes and fan site.