The History of Lego
Who doesn’t love Lego? With more than 400 billion Lego bricks made since its launch in 1958 you are certainly not alone.
From its start as a small Danish toy factory in the 30s, the brand most of us know from our childhoods continues its global dominance of the toy market with no sign of running out of building steam.
Thanks to its vast themed range, from Batman Lego sets to the high tech Mindstorm, Lego is repeatedly voted into the best toy company top ten and is a staple of many a curious-minded kid’s Christmas gift. Pretty impressive for the small plastic brick that made Lego’s name and continues to hold its own as a traditional toy in this fast-paced age of digital play.
Still privately owned by the family of the Lego creator, Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen, Lego has proved to be the building block of so many childhoods around the world. We take a peek into the past to explore the history of Lego and why its appeal prevails today. Get ready to be Lego nostalgic.
The legend of Lego
The ubiquitous Lego brick started life not as the plastic toy we all know and love today but in a carpenter’s workshop that specialized in stepladders, ironing boards, stools and wooden toys.
What is now known globally as the Lego Group was founded back in 1932 by Ole Kirk Christiansen in the Danish village of Billund, where he worked with his young son, Godtfred. The toys they produced were all made of wood and included piggy banks, pull toys, cars, trucks, and houses.
The toy business initially proved to be a tough gig for the Christiansen family, as the impact of the Great Depression made its mark across Europe. To keep afloat, Ole Kirk continued to make household furniture and practical goods, but it seems his heart was set on his wooden toys.
A resourceful chap, Ole Kirk made the most of what he found around him. When the 1930s’ trend for toy yo-yos spun out of fashion and his business took a bit of a hit, he used the surplus wooden yo-yo rounds as wheels for toy trucks. Without quite realizing it, Ole Kirk had the beginnings of what would go on to become a toy phenomenon around the world.
As the workshop grew and he hired more staff, Ole Kirk Christiansen saw he had a toy business with real potential on his hands, although he was still focused on making wooden products. Plastic was yet to come onboard.
It’s all in the name
We love this bit of the Lego legend. In 1934, Ole decided to formally name his growing company and threw it open to his still small workforce – with a bottle of homemade wine up for grabs for the winner. But in the end, it was Ole Kirk himself who came up with two catchy options – Legio (a play on the words ‘legion of toys’) and ‘Lego’, taken from the Danish phrase leg godt, which means ‘play well’. The wise Ole plumped for Lego and the brand was born.
Sometime later, the company discovered that in Latin, the word Lego could also be interpreted as ‘I put together’ or ‘I assemble’. Pure coincidence? We like to think it was meant to be.
From wood to plastic
Plastic didn’t come into the Lego story until after the Second World War but when it did, it went on to totally transform the brand. Quick off the mark, the Christiansens bought one of the first plastic injection molding machines in Denmark in 1947 and got to work. A small truck that could be taken apart and put back together was one of the first plastic toys to be produced on the Christiansens’ shiny new machine.
The new molding machine was to revolutionize Lego’s output and their plastic range steadily grew to around 200 different toys, including what they rather unimaginatively called the ‘automatic binding brick’. With its four and eight connecting ‘studs’, it was eventually renamed and the Lego brick had arrived.
However, the new plastic material was not well received by Lego’s early customers, who still preferred wooden or metal toys and the company was initially hit by poor sales. Not ones to give up, Ole Kirk and his son looked further afield for inspiration and saw the opportunity for a building system that would open up the potential of the new plastic Lego bricks. The bricks had pegs or studs on the top and were hollow underneath, meaning they could be locked or ‘coupled’ together to create stable structures that traditional wooden building blocks simply couldn’t do.
A serious fire at the company’s warehouse in 1960 which destroyed most of their stock of wooden toys finally made Ole Kirk choose to totally move over to plastic – the Lego bricks were here to stay.
The Lego system
After a few more design tweaks to the Lego brick in the late 50s which added hollow tubes underneath to improve their locking ability, the company patented the much sturdier ‘stud and coupling’ design. With a range of brick sizes depending on the number of studs – from single 1 x 1 bricks to large base plates – Lego added roof bricks to the collection and the first Lego system building sets were introduced. Sadly, Ole Kirk died in 1958 and didn’t get to see his beloved company really take off but his ambitious son Godtfred took over the reins and made Lego a global success.
Here’s a Lego-tastic fact for you – the design of the original patented Lego brick has never been changed, meaning today’s top sellers such as Lego Castle sets and Lego Creator sets are still compatible with the first sets from 1958.
And boy, those Lego bricks were certainly designed to last. Since 1964, they have been made from acrylonitrile butadiene styrene or ABS plastic. Non-toxic, less prone to discoloration and much more resistant to heat, acids, salt and other chemicals, these tough little bricks are more than up to the job of being any child’s favorite floor toy!
Lego goes global
With its patent in place and the improved coupling brick design working well, there seemed to be no stopping this super building toy from taking over the world. In 1962 Lego finally broke America and by 2015, Lego sets were being sold in more than 140 countries worldwide.
But from the 60s, it was no longer just about simple connecting building blocks; additional plastic pieces were also flying off the Lego production line, including the first Lego wheels. These little plastic tires proved to be another game changer for Lego, taking the building fun to all things automobile and bringing movement to the toy range.
And while we are on the subject of Lego tires, its quirky fact time again – turning around more than 300 million tiny wheels a year, Lego can claim to be the most prolific wheel manufacturer in the world. No, really.
The arrival of the Lego set
Take a Lego brick and you can build anything right? All it needs is some imagination and when it came to the Lego sets we are now all familiar with, those Danish design dudes had it in droves.
In 1964 Lego stepped up their toy game and introduced the very first full Lego sets, which came complete with all the parts and instructions to create a specific building, car, truck or train. They went down a storm and laid the foundations for the super-sophisticated build kits such as the bestselling Star Wars Lego sets we have today.
By 1969, Lego had also recognized the potential of a much younger market and released Duplo, their bigger-sized block range for the tiny hands of the under-5s. Cleverly, the Lego design team made the Duplo sets totally compatible with the smaller Lego brick, so they could still be used as the child progressed to the main Lego system. Fact time again – Duplo comes from another Latin word, duplus, which means double. A Duplo brick is exactly twice the size of a Lego building brick. Now you know.
Upping their game
With the attention of the toy market totally captured, from the early 70s, Lego’s themed set lines started to come out thick and fast, boosted by the arrival of Lego’s new mini human figures, with their moving arms, legs, and heads. The themed sets were now more than just an individual object but full build scenarios with characters to play with, keeping kids, both young and old, entertained for hours.
Not happy with static builds, Lego also went mechanical, with what would eventually become the massively popular Technic range, featuring moving parts such as gears, cogs, axles, and levers and designed to appeal to the imagination of the budding engineer (and their dad).
Well over 100 different Lego set themes (and counting) have since been released, many going on to become Lego’s worldwide bestsellers, including Lego City in 1978, Lego Castle sets in 1978, Star Wars Lego sets in 1999 and Harry Potter Lego, which was launched in 2001.
From the original simple house design that kickstarted the brick building revolution in 1958 through to the all-singing, all-dancing Minecraft Lego sets the Lego Technic range and everything in between, Lego sets have become a staple in the toybox of most children’s bedrooms.
Go big or go home
The 80s and 90s became the decisive decades for Lego, with its ambitious brick building range growing in both size and complexity. The company launched a range for advanced builders – Lego Model Team sets – which included a race car and an off-road vehicle, featuring a level of detail and realistic features not yet seen in any other Lego set series. Their first controlled robot kit was also launched. The Lego Group officially became one of the world’s top ten toy companies and its original theme park, Legoland – which had been opened in Lego’s hometown of Billund in 1968 – hit its one million visitors a year mark.
The 90s saw Lego enter the digital age with Lego Mindstorms, enabling children to create and program intelligent Lego models and in 1998 they released the Lego group’s first video game, Lego Chess.
Large-scale Lego builds were also being constructed, with full-sized Lego versions of a two-story house, an actual-scale Star Wars X Fighter and a Volvo car to name but a few being built over the years. And by the end of the 90s, Lego had brokered its first of what would become many lucrative licensing deals with film and TV, bringing much-loved movies and fictional characters to the Lego set range, including Harry Potter and Batman Lego sets.
After weathering some profit blips in the early 2000s, Lego re-examined its product ranges’ appeal to ‘children of the new Millennium’ and the increasing demands on their attention and time to play. More themed sets that linked with the digital world such as Mindstorms and Minecraft Lego sets were developed and the movie character sets such as Star Wars Lego which was linked to the film’s reboot continued to be a draw.
Lego also got its turn on the silver screen, with the release of the first Lego Movie in 2014 proving as much as a hit with the adults as it was with their kids. The film also spawned an impressive list of Lego set themed follow-ups, including the Lego Batman and Lego Ninjago movies.
But at the heart of the Lego brand for the 21st Century remained its tradition – and that was to continue making toys which children want to play with, again and again. And by looking at the sales, it is clearly working.
In the US alone, Lego launches around 130 new sets every year while globally, it’s estimated that seven Lego sets are bought every single second. To add even more mindboggling numbers to the Lego phenomenon equation – around 19 billion Lego parts are produced each year, or 36,000 every minute. Lego, it seems, is as popular as ever!
Lego grows up
As if we need to be told, Lego is not only for kids anymore– a fact that has not been lost on Lego themselves. And they are not just expecting the grown-ups to make the most of their kids’ Lego (although we think that is perfectly acceptable), and since the 80s they’ve given adults a range of their own.
The Lego sets designed with adults in mind – such as Scale Model and Lego Architecture – are 3-D puzzles with a large volume of pieces and a high degree of Lego engineering to challenge the more mature gray matter. Or for the adult to build with their child, hoping they don’t find it easier than they do.
Completed, the adult Lego sets can be stunning pieces of work and are highly collectible. Lego is also an acceptable hobby for adults and if you need a sensible reason to Lego-build, here it is – it can help you to de-stress and unwind. And who doesn’t know a man who would love a finished version of the 4,000-piece Deathstar from the Lego Star Wars set range in pride of place on the shelf in the living room?
What next for LEGO?
While it still has its HQ in the Danish hometown of Billund where toys have been made by the Christiansen family since 1932, Lego continues to be one of the world’s most recognizable brands.
With Harry Potter Hogwarts, a new Jurassic Park, an updated Millennium Falcon from the Star Wars Lego set, a perfect gift for any Star Wars fan, and a brand new range of collectible mini-figures making up just some of the latest releases this year, there’s no sign of Lego’s ‘legion of toys’ slowing down. And with the Lego Movie Part 2 due out in 2019 the spotlight will remain on the humble plastic brick for another bumper building year.
Despite the digital revolution, Lego continues to be one of the world’s leading toy manufacturers, with a value of over $7 billion. For what started as a simple plastic toy brick back in the 30s, it looks like Lego will still have its place in the playrooms (and man caves) of big and little kids the world over for some time to come.