LEGO might be synonymous with plastic bricks nowadays, but the brand’s legacy started with wooden toys back in 1932 and has a fascinating history which has seen it become one of the world’s most profitable toy companies.
How did that happen? Let’s find out.
Ole Kirk Kristiansen was a Danish carpenter living in the town of Bilund wanted to create toys to help children learn about the world.
His first collection had 36 items in it – including a fire engine, a car, an aeroplane, and even a yoyo. The toys were well made but the Great Depression made sales difficult and required some inventive design work by Ole, including using leftover yo-yo parts for vehicle wheels.
In 1934, Ole called his company “Lego”, from the Danish “Leg Odt” (“Let’s Play”) and by the 1940s it was well established as a respected provider of quality toys throughout Europe.
Following WWII, advances in plastics had led to practical injection moulding suitable for toys and a British company sold them the necessary machinery in 1947. As part of the demonstration, the sales representative also showed the Lego people “Self-locking building bricks”, developed by British designer Hilary Page a few years previously (and instantly recognisable to us today as the forerunner of the modern Lego brick).
Impressed by the design, Lego began producing their own “Automatic Binding Bricks” in 1949, renaming them to “Lego Bricks” in 1953. (Lego openly acknowledges the British design as being their forerunner).
While Lego is one of the world’s largest toy companies today, parents in the 1940s and early 1950s were not completely sold on the idea of plastic toys, preferring wood or metal instead.
The Lego factory had a reputation for quality in Europe – the company’s motto was (and still is) “Only the best is good enough”, which went some way to explaining why, despite the reticence towards the new material by consumers, by 1951 half the products coming out of the Lego factory were made of plastic.
The game-changer for the company came in 1955, when Ole’s adult son Godtfried Kirk Christiansen (who also worked for the business), developed the idea of a “System In Play” – basically, instead of being a conventional kit for making one thing (or several similar things), having more (and different) types of bricks would allow even more or larger things to be built.
Godtfried took over as company manager in 1957, and the company ended production of wooden toys in 1960 after a fire destroyed their warehouse.
Lego as most of us know it dates from 1978, when the iconic Minifigure was introduced. This marked a transition from Lego as a general building toy to a more themed experience offering greater play opportunities.
The first themed sets were Town, Castle and Space and introduced in 1978. Town morphed into the current City theme in 2005, while the Castle theme was discontinued in 2013 alongside the classic “sci-fi” Space theme (a more realistic Space theme exists today as part of the current City theme, and there’s the Star Wars theme that’s been going since 1999 as well). The original Lego building blocks are still available as “Lego Classic”, too, as are the Duplo range (introduced in1969 and designed for pre-schoolers).
To date, there have been about 150 themes – including an Australian Outback themed one that was only produced in 1997. There are also two gaming themes – Minecraft and Super Mario Bros – plus Lego kits of the NES and Atari 2600 consoles.
The assorted Lego themes and sub-themes are quite the rabbit hole and outside the scope of this article, however, but Lego have said there are more than 30 global themes currently in production.
What is relevant, however, is that Lego has been part of the lives of nearly all of us reading this – whether it’s from when we were kids, as adult enthusiasts, or sharing it with our own children.
What’s particularly remarkable is the brand’s successful branching out from physical toys to other media – the one most relevant to us being the many assorted Lego video games such as Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga and Lego City Undercover (most of which are very good and a lot of fun, incidentally).
In addition to a number of movies (including The Lego Movie, The Lego Movie 2 and The Lego Batman Movie), there are also several Legoland theme parks around the world – the nearest one to us is in Malaysia.
Just to give you an idea of how big the Lego group has become, their HQ in Bilund now has more than 430 designers working at it (drawn from 40 different nationalities) and there are more than 24,000 people working for Lego around the world, including at their five factories in Bilund, Nyíregyháza (Hungary), Monterrey (Mexico), Jiaxing (China), and Kladno (Czech Republic). A carbon-neutral factory in Vietnam is also under construction at time of writing.
There are more than 830 official Lego stores around the world, including several in Australia, and countless more authorised retailers of their products both in physical stores and online, servicing more than 120 countries.
Lego’s entire catalogue (current production and retired items) runs to more than 1000 sets, and about 18,000 different products; the company has also set that each year about 50% of its sets are new.
There’s been an increased focus in recent years on very expensive but detailed kits designed for adults too – The Millennium Falcon and AT-AT share the distinction of being the most expensive commercially available Lego kits in Australia at AUD$1299(!) each, while the Titanic is arguably the largest, containing more than 9,000 parts and being 1.35m long (not to mention costing AUD$999). The upcoming Hogwart’s Express Collector’s Edition (costing AUD$799) is close behind it, containing more than 5000 pieces and measuring 1.18m long.
There are also an extensive range of other grown-up targetted kits (with lower but still significant price tags) as well, such as the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Vespa 125 and the NASA Space Shuttle Discovery to name but three of the many available options.
No matter what your age or interest, there’s a Lego kit or theme out there for you – and given how much Lego kits have changed even in my own lifetime, it’s going to be fascinating to see what kits future generations will be playing with.
To round out this piece, Lego have provided some particularly interesting facts about Lego bricks which are worth sharing:
Lego Brick Fun Facts
- Number of different Lego element colours: 60+
- Number of different types of Lego System elements (shapes): 3,600
- Number of Lego tyres produced: Approximately 670 million
- Number of minifigures produced since 1978: 8.3 billion+
- Number of Lego elements sold per year: Approximately 70 billion, in more than 130 countries
- Most produced Lego element: 1 X 2 plate (3023), approximately 2.5 billion
- The moulds used to produce Lego elements are accurate to within four my (= 0.004 mm) – less than the width of a single hair. This accuracy ensures what we refer to as “clutch power”
- During the moulding process, the plastic is heated to 230-310°C before injected into the moulds with a pressure of up to 29,000 psi. In comparison, a car’s tyre pressure is 29 to 43 psi
If you’re interested in delving into the history of Lego in more detail, the official Lego website on the subject has plenty of information and illustrations and is well worth reading too.
Here’s something interesting to think about as this article concludes: There are more Lego Minifigures on Earth than there are actual people.