LEGO: A History


It may not seem to many that “toy bricks” would be much fun, but the history of LEGO Bricks can be. “You can put an eye out with those things!” surely would be the parental complaint on Christmas morning. “What was Santa thinking!?” they would scream. Of course, LEGO Bricks – unchanged since 1958 – are not made of clay or concrete, but common ,and apparently safe, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene plastic.

A Danish carpenter is to thank for LEGO. Ole Kirk Christiansen began fabricating toys of wood in 1932. The Lego Group began in his workshop in 1934 and the company name was derived from leg godt, the Danish phrase for “play well.” The toy-and-ironing board manufacturer grew explosively over the next years and soon kept 50 people employed. Yet it was not until the purchase and implementation of a plastic injection-molding machine that the Lego Group launched into the stratosphere of global toy sales. This allowed for mass production. The predecessor to the LEGO Brick of today, Automatic Binding Bricks were introduced in 1949 and were packaged in sets of mixed red and white colors.

LEGO Bricks were inspired by Kiddicraft Self-Locking Bricks from the United Kingdom, which were patented in 1939 and first sold in 1947. The bricks from Kiddicraft were developed out of the traditional wooden block design that locked them together with round studs on top and a hollow bottom. LEGO acquired the rights to Kiddicraft in 1981 prior to the start of litigation.

The name Automatic Binding Bricks was changed to LEGO Bricks in 1953. Yet the technical design was not spot-on as their ability to lock together was imperfect. The final brick design was developed in 1958 and LEGO Bricks manufactured in that year interlock perfectly with those of today. It was also in 1958 that Ole Kirk Christiansen passed away, leaving his son, Godtfred, to lead the company.

LEGO was first sold in the United States in 1973 and made history in 1998 when it was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York. That institution says that educational theorists – especially those influenced by the pioneering Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget – see LEGO Bricks as ideal toys. They say LEGO Bricks are proof that children are not, as some have theorized, passive sponges soaking up impressions but that they construct, organize, and reconfigure their experiences. Indeed: The possibilities for constructing, organizing and reconfiguring are virtually endless. Any six standard-sized LEGO blocks can be put together in 102,981,500 combinations.

Spinoff products were eventually developed, called “play systems.” Such themed toy sets were short-cuts for children to snap together trains, dinosaurs, small cars, pirates and many more. Some complain that such sets restrict what children could and should be imagining and constructing with their blocks. Business is business, however, and the company has manufactured more than 320 billion snap-together bricks in the last 60 years. That is 45 for every man, woman and child on Earth. In 2000, LEGO made history again when it was given the moniker of “Toy of the Century” by both Fortune magazine and the British Association of Toy Retailers.

By Gregory Baskin

National Toy Hall of Fame