From its inception in the early 1930s right up until today, the LEGO Group’s history is as colorful as the toys it makes. Few other playthings share the LEGO brand’s creative spirit, educational benefits, resilience, quality, and universal appeal. This history charts the birth of the LEGO Group from the workshop of a Danish carpenter and its steady growth as a small, family-run toy manufacturer to its current position as a market-leading, award-winning brand. The company’s growing catalogue of products—including the earliest wooden toys, plastic bricks, play themes and other building systems such as DUPLO, Technic, and MINDSTORMS—are chronicled in detail, alongside the manufacturing process, LEGOLAND parks, licensed toys, and computer games.
Learn all about how LEGO pulled itself out of an economic crisis and embraced technology to make building blocks relevant to twenty-first century children, and discover the vibrant fan community of kids and adults whose conventions, websites, and artwork keep the LEGO spirit alive. Building a History will have you reminiscing about old Classic Space sets, rummaging through the attic for forgotten minifigure friends, and playing with whatever LEGO bricks you can get your hands on (even if it means sharing with your kids).
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1891 – 1953: Bricks and Mortar
Godtfred Kirk Christiansen (1920 – 1995) may have been the person to develop and patent the famous LEGO brick design in 1958 but the LEGO story began with a different man some years before he was born. A few kilometres outside of Billund, Denmark – a town famous for its connection to the LEGO name and the original LEGOLAND theme park – in the Grene Church cemetery, is the final resting place of Ole Kirk Christiansen; Godtfred's father and the father of the LEGO Group.
Ole Kirk (OKC) was born into poverty in the farming community of Filskov, near Billund in 1891 and went on to work as a carpenter honing the skills which would lead to the creation of wooden toys and later plastic building blocks. These intersecting bricks would inspire the development of a system of play synonymous with the LEGO name and the most popular toy of the last 100 years, according to a 2004 survey carried out by the V&A Museum of Childhood.
When the young, Danish carpenter opened his wood-working shop in Billund in 1916, a year before the town received electricity, he never expected to make his fortune in the toy business. It's also likely that he never imagined Billund, once a town described in Henry Wiencek's book The World of LEGO Toys as a backwater home to only a few hundred people, becoming one of Denmark's most visited destinations. Today, Billund is home to over 6,000 people as well as LEGO headquarters, LEGOLAND Billund and the country's second busiest airport, which was built by the LEGO Group in 1964.
Throughout the late 1920s Ole Kirk's growing business restored old buildings, developed new structures and created goods such as ladders and ironing boards for his small community – mainly local farmers and their families. By the end of the decade he no longer worked alone but employed a small workforce. But this new business venture was not without its setbacks. And Ole Kirk demonstrated unshakeable strength of character when, in 1924, two of his sons (Godtfred and Karl Georg) accidentally set light to wood shavings in the workshop, which quickly resulted in the whole premises and the family home being destroyed by fire. This tragic accident was looked at as a reason to expand the business, and Ole Kirk had the plans drawn up for a large building that would house his new workshop and a small flat for his family. The rest of the building's space would be rented out to provide an additional income.
By the 1930s the Great Depression had begun to effect farming prices in Europe (dropping in some areas by 60 per cent) meaning Ole Kirk's customers could no longer afford his services or products. In early 1931 Ole Kirk was forced to lay off some employees, reducing his workforce to just seven people by 1932. The business in decline, this was the year Ole Kirk started making affordable wooden toys – brightly coloured animals, piggy banks and racing cars he hoped to sell to the farming families in the area. But by the end of 1932 he faced bankruptcy and turned to his siblings for help. They loaned him money, but asked that he stop producing toys, something they saw as unprofitable. Ole Kirk continued, however, and in 1934 named the company LEGO, a contraction of the Danish phrase leg godt meaning 'play well'.
Despite being famed for producing the plastic LEGO brick and the LEGO System, Ole Kirk's company started out producing toys out of wood. Some reports indicate that it was the production of scaled models (for his other carpentry projects) that got him thinking about making toys, while others claim the idea was suggested to him by a social worker. Either way, soon enough miniature vehicles – cars, trains, planes and buses – began to appear among the ironing boards, step-ladders and wooden stools. These simple-looking toys may seem bulky and plain, especially by today's standards, but they were built with the same level of skill and craftsmanship that Ole Kirk had been putting into his furniture and carpentry for years. Believing that 'only the best was good enough' (the company motto), even for a child's toy, Ole Kirk's toy manufacturing process was as meticulous as all his other work, if not more so. The birch wood used to build the toys was cut from the forest, dried outside for two years, and then dried in a kiln for three weeks before it was considered suitable for the workshop. After the toys were assembled, they were sealed, sanded and primed and finally painted three times over to produce a top-quality finish. Once, when Ole Kirk's son Godtfred skipped a layer of painting to save money, his father ordered him to return the shipment and repaint all the toys himself, reminding his son of the importance of product quality over profiteering.
A price list from 1932 shows 28 different toys listed, including a six-wheeled school bus, a tramcar, and a lorry. It also shows that Ole Kirk continued to manufacture practical furniture and household items alongside the colourful new additions to his product line – not that the people of Billund could really afford either. While his first toy range enjoyed some success, the families in the area were poor, and would sometimes exchange food for toys rather than money. In 1932 a wholesaler went bankrupt leaving Ole Kirk with a surplus of toys. Selling them door-to-door, he even traded some toys for a sack of almonds.
These trains, planes and automobiles were soon joined by a menagerie of animal creatures in 1935. From bejewelled elephants and jolly green mallards to ladybirds, squirrels and puffed up cockerels, the animal kingdom had arrived. Some of these new designs were more complicated than their transportation predecessors, especially the pull-toys, which incorporated moving parts and noise mechanisms, the patterns for which Ole Kirk carefully drew up himself. They included a man riding on a goat, which would move up and down as you pulled it along – it was based on the Hans Christiansen Andersen story Clumsy Hans – a monkey riding a car and a pony towing a brightly coloured cart. One of the most recognisable and most popular LEGO pull-toys was also one of the first. The wooden duck was sold in various incarnations for 22 years (1935 – 2957) and is typical of the wooden designs the LEGO Group produced during the 30s and 40s. As it moves along on wheels its beak opens and closes, while the base includes a mechanism that 'quacks' at the same time. Because of the expanding workload the painting of early LEGO ducks was contracted out to locals. In the 1940s TLG started stencilling the ducks instead to save time and labour costs. Because of this and its longevity, the LEGO wooden duck is available in hundreds of variations.
Over the next 28 years TLG manufactured not only wooden toys but also a variety of other wood-based products. In one 1950s LEGO catalogue there are 120 products listed (over two hundred designs were produced in total), and while there are the expected wooden animals, trains and trucks, there's also an abacus, a skipping rope and a dustpan and brush. The company also made doll buggies, wheel barrows, chalk boards and coat hangers designed by Dagny Holm (Ole Kirk's cousin, who would go on to be one of the chief designers of LEGOLAND Billund). These toys may have been a diversion from the carpentry work Ole Kirk had trained for, but they were not that unusual when compared to the toys being produced by other European toy makers at the time. Prior to the Twentieth Century Germany had been the epicentre of toy manufacturing, and one particular village, Seiffen in the Ore Mountains region of Saxony, was renowned for its production of detailed wooden toys and traditional Christmas figures and decorations, which were, and still are, exported all over the world.
As a small company with just ten employees in 1939, the LEGO Group had tough competition from these and other imported toys. Despite the fact that LEGO wooden toys were never sold outside of Denmark (with the exception of some sales in Norway), the company wasn't immune to the trends and crazes of the toy industry. A popular and well known LEGO story is that of Ole Kirk's brush with the yo-yo. In the mid-1930s, the demand for yo-yos was at an all-time high in America after Duncan Toys took over a Californian yo-yo manufacturing company and began promoting yo-yo contests. The craze soon found its way to European shores, especially after the first World Yo-Yo Competition was held in London in 1932. Fully equipped to deal with the demand for the little wooden toys, Ole Kirk set about producing a large supply for Danish children, but as all crazes soon do, this one died out, leaving Ole Kirk with a huge surplus of yoyos he was unable to sell. He struck on a great idea – turn the yo-yo discs into wheels for his toys including a brand new toy truck, and his thinking paid off – the truck was a success. This was an important lesson for the toymaker, and for the company, which avoided following popular trends and toy crazes for many years to come. He learnt the importance of innovation and originality over following in the footsteps of other manufacturers, and perhaps the most important point of all: If you want to have longevity, and customers who keep coming back for more, you have to sell them a toy that has endless possibilities.
Despite a factory fire in 1942, the LEGO Group continued to grow and to produce wooden toys even after the introduction of plastic toys in 1949. In fact plastic and metal were incorporated into some of the designs – see Monypoli below. Unfortunately, as the company's plastic toy line developed and aligned itself with the large-scale manufacturing of the future of toys, the sales of the wooden line peaked in 1952, and remained slow thereafter.
As Bill Hanlon explains in his 1993 book Plastic Toys: Dimestore Dreams of the '40s and '50s, it's hard to imagine the world around us without plastic. Over sixty years of development and manufacturing has resulted in the abundance of safe plastic-based toys we know today, and the LEGO Group is an important part of that history. There was a surge in the use of plastic injection-moulding during World War Two because of the increase in demand for mass-produced and affordable items. Unlike wood or metal toy production, where fine details were costly to include and uniformed precision was harder to achieve, injection-moulding provided the toy industry with a cheaper product that was faster to produce. As Hanlon explains, the advantages were many. Colour could be added to the cellulose acetate granules (the type of plastic originally used by the LEGO Group), rather than painting the toys after moulding, meaning the colour could not chip or peel; plastic was relatively strong and did not splinter like wood; transparent parts, such as car windshields, could be added in plastic; they were also far more hygienic than their wooden counterparts. Perhaps one of the most fundamental differences between the two types of manufacturing was the fact they were usually lighter and therefore cheaper to ship on a large scale. This cost difference was passed on to the consumer, meaning children were able to save whatever small amount of money they had to buy cheap plastic toys.
The LEGO Group joined the world of plastic toys in 1947, when it became one of the first companies in Denmark to own an injection moulding machine. Ole Kirk saw a real future in plastic toys, and had wanted to buy three machines, but at 30,000DK each his family managed to persuade him to wait until they were certain the investment would pay off. But Ole Kirk had been keeping his eye on the industry and saw how plastic toys were beginning to become more available across Europe – and the reaction was positive. The company spent two years creating designs and moulds and in 1949 released the first of their plastic toys. These included a plastic rattle shaped like a bloated fish designed by Godtfred Kirk Christiansen. The toy was made by fusing two mirror-image pieces together. Many different coloured plastic granules were mixed before heating, so the rattle was available in a huge variety of colour patterns. The details (eyes, fins, lips) were hand painted on afterwards with the same level of quality and precision already associated with LEGO toys.
As TLG became more comfortable with the material and the equipment, toys became more detailed. The 1951 Teddyflyver – a small teddy bear flying a brightly-coloured plane, consisted of five separately moulded parts, and was available in a variety of colour combinations. In the same year TLG released their first Ferguson farm vehicles – their most complex plastic creations at the time. The Ferguson Trackto, modelled on the popular British tractor designed by Harry Ferguson, consisted of between 10 and 15 separate parts and was mainly available in grey and red, although there were also rare colours, such as a limited number of transparent tractors. The tools and moulds required to produce the Tracktor cost 30,000DK – more than the price of a real Ferguson TE 20 at the time. But the expense paid off because the model, either bought and assembled as a set or as individual pieces, was a big hit for the company. There were also a number of farming tools and additional vehicles available – some accessories were made in association with another manufacturer called Triton. Not only did this toy introduce the idea of 'added play value' – giving children the opportunity to build as well as play with the finished product – but it was the first time the LEGO Group had employed the sales method of stocking toy stores with sets as well as boxes of individual parts, something they would continue to do with the Automatic Binding Brick and LEGO bricks.
The introduction of plastic toys also marked the first LEGO creation that the company felt warranted a patent. Somewhat surprisingly, the first LEGO patent was for a toy gun. Today, the LEGO Group are careful not to produce 'war toys' although weapons relevant to particular themes and characters are included, they are not the focus of any LEGO toy. In 1945 TLG produced a wooden pistol and then reproduced it in plastic four years later. Available in black, green and blue, this toy pistol had a clever self-loading mechanism that meant it could rapidly fire the plastic projectiles that were also available. When you pressed the trigger it would load a projectile from the magazine into the back of the barrel where a main spring would release it before pushing the trigger forward ready for the next shot. So unique was the gun that Godtfred, who was now regularly designing toys for the company, patented it.
The evolution of the first plastic LEGO brick was as logical as that of the wooden gun to plastic gun or the wooden truck to the plastic Ferguson farm vehicles. TLG had made traditional wooden building blocks for years. The first ones, released in the 1940s, were painted in different colours and hollowed out to include a rattle inside. Later versions such as the LEGO Klodser, was a set of 36 bricks that measured 4cm and featured letters and numbers painted on the sides. Other bricks varied in size and some had pictures of animals painted on. With the introduction of plastic there was more opportunity for creativity when it came to the simple idea of building bricks.
Of course, Ole Kirk and Godtfred were not the only people to have considered the possibilities of plastic building bricks. Wooden construction toys such as Lincoln Logs (first released in 1916), created by Frank Lloyd Wright's son, John, had been growing in popularity throughout the 1930s and 40s, as well as A.C. Gilbert's steel Erector sets in America and Frank Hornby's earlier Meccano construction kits in Britain. Some companies had begun to develop the idea of turning traditional building blocks into a more sturdy brick building system such as the 1934 Bild-O-Brik and 1935 British-made Minibrix. Both toys were made from hard rubber, rather than plastic. Minibrix kits consisted of a number of parts to create building structures (bricks, roof tiles, doors, windows, etc.). Most parts connected together with the use of lugs, or 'pips' as they were known in the company, protruding from the bottom on the brick which connected into small holes in the top of another brick. One man, however, is known for laying the foundations for the brick TLG would go on to develop – British toymaker Hilary Page and his Kiddicraft Company.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Building a History: The Lego Group"
Copyright © 2012 Sarah Herman.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR,
In The Beginning ...,
Chapter 1 - 1891 – 1953: Bricks and Mortar,
Chapter 2 - 1954 – 1977: Systematic Success,
Chapter 3 - 1978 – 1988: The Golden Age,
Chapter 4 - 1989 – 1999: It's a LEGO World,
Chapter 5 - 2000 – 2011 Foundations for the Future,
Chapter 6 - Building Outside the Box,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Very good book
I liked this book pretty much because i LOVE legos
This has so much history on legos and how the founder of legos didnt only make legos he also made wood toys and othor types of toys i think that this is a very good book and if you want to know more about legos then buy this book
O.k.if you like legos
Why dont you marry legos:)