Find out how these fun, stackable blocks became the most popular toys in the world.
The LEGO toy company was founded in 1934 by a Danish carpenter who loved making wooden pull toys. From its humble beginnings, the company has lived up to its namewhich comes from the Danish phrase meaning to always "play well"encouraging children to use their imagination and build whatever they can dream up.
In this book, author Jim O'Connor describes how a simple conceptsmall plastic bricks that snap togethermorphed into a cultural phenomenon.
About the Author
Jim O'Connor has written several books for Who HQ, including What Is Rock and Roll?, What Was Pompeii?, What Was the Battle of Gettysburg?, and What Were the Twin Towers? He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
What Is LEGO?
Billund is a very small town in Denmark, a country in northern Europe. Only about six thousand people live there. It is far away from Denmark’s capital city of Copenhagen. But every year over a million and a half people visit Billund.
Because Billund is the home of the LEGO toy company. And LEGO fans from all over the world go there to visit LEGO’s main factory. There, nineteen billion LEGO pieces are made every year. That’s right. Nineteen billion. Those pieces come in dozens of different shapes, colors, and sizes that are used in countless different LEGO sets. Besides the original LEGO factory in Billund, there are four others, in the Czech Republic, Hungary, China, and Mexico. Altogether they make over ninety billion LEGO bricks a year. They also make seven hundred million tiny rubber tires for LEGO cars and trucks.
In Billund, the crowds of LEGO fans also visit LEGOLAND. It opened in 1968 and is a thirtyfiveacre amusement park for children eleven or younger. There’s the Vikings River Splash, Lloyd’s Laser Maze, and roller coasters such as The Dragon, which is based on LEGO Knights Kingdomtm sets, as well as DUPLO planes, LEGO cars to ride, and more. But the heart of the park is Miniland, a complete miniature city made from more than twenty million LEGO bricks.
So how did the LEGO company end up in Billund? And how has LEGO grown to be the most successful toy company in the world?
The LEGO story starts in the 1930s with a very skillful carpenter who happened to live in Billund. His name was Ole Kirk Christiansen. He’s among the most famous people you’ve never heard of!
Chapter 1: A Toy Maker
Ole Kirk Christiansen was born in 1891 in a small Danish village called Filskov. He was the youngest of ten children. The Christiansens had little money. Even as a young child, Ole helped work on the family farm. For fun, he liked to carve toys for himself out of wood. As a young man, he worked for one of his older brothers and learned to become a carpenter.
After a few years, Ole moved first to Germany and then to Norway. He was hoping to find better work for someone with his skills. But in 1916, after Ole met and married Kirstine Sorensen, the young couple moved back to Denmark and settled in the quiet farming village of Billund.
Ole made a living fixing up old homes and building new houses. He had a shop where, besides furniture, he made handy housewares like ironing boards, stools, and ladders.
Ole and Kirstine had three sons. In 1924, two of the boys accidentally set fire to the carpentry shop. They had been playing with wood chips. In no time, the shop burned to the ground. So did the Christiansens’ house, which was right next door to the shop. All of a sudden, Ole had no home for his family and no workplace.
Ole, however, did not throw up his hands and give up. That was not his nature, even though by 1926 there was another Christiansen son to feed. He rebuilt his house as well as the shop, which ended up being bigger than the old one. Life seemed hopeful again.
But then in 1929, the world economy crashed. This was the beginning of the Great Depression that lasted through the 1930s. Millions of people in Europe and the United States lost their jobs, their savings, and even their homes.
During these years, Ole’s business barely scraped by. No one could afford his ladders, furniture, or ironing boards. One by one, he had to lay off his workers. His only helper was the third of his four sons, Godtfred. Godtfred was only twelve years old.
One misfortune followed another. In 1932, Ole’s wife Kirstine died. That left Ole with all the responsibility for taking care of the family. However, throughout his life Ole never let tragedies, large or small, stop him.
One bright spot even during the Depression was that people kept on buying Ole’s painted wooden pull toys. Although they didn’t have much money, parents still wanted their children to have fun. One of his most popular toys was a colorful wooden duck. Its beak could open and shut when it was pulled across the floor.
Sometimes, his customers didn’t have enough money to pay for the toys. That was okay with Ole. He would accept farmers’ vegetables and eggs as payment instead.
In time, Ole decided to forget about making practical things. Instead, he’d concentrate on turning out more colorful wooden toys. In addition to the very popular duck, he made wooden trucks and cars.
No matter how bad business was, Ole insisted that his toys had to be top quality. Once, Godtfred decided to save some money by only putting two coats of varnish on the wooden ducks instead of the usual three. When Ole heard what Godtfred had done, he was very upset. He made his son unwrap every duck and apply another coat of the varnish. Ole told Godtfred that only the best is good enough. “Only the best is good enough” became the motto of Ole’s company. Godtfred carved it on a sign in the workshop for all to see.
In 1934, Ole decided to give a name to his little toy business. He based it on the Danish phrase leg godt, which means “play well.” Ole combined the first two letters of each word to make up a name for his company . . . LEGO. It also turns out that in Latin, lego means “I assemble.” What an amazing coincidence!
Slowly, the company began to do better. Ole was able to hire back some of the people he’d laid off. Soon LEGO was employing ten workers.
Ole began traveling around Denmark and other countries nearby to show his wooden toys to store owners. It was hard for him to talk about how good his toys were. He was not a natural salesman, but he did not give up.
In 1934, Ole was married again, to a woman named Sofie Jorgensen. Soon a new baby—-a little girl called Ulla—-joined the family.
War waged through Europe from 1939 to 1945. Yet during this time, Ole was able to not only keep LEGO open but to expand. Things were looking up for Ole’s business. Then, believe it or not, in 1942, the LEGO factory and warehouse burned down!
Did this stop Ole?
No! Once again he rebuilt, this time making the factory even bigger than before. By the next year, he was employing forty people. In time, all his sons were working for LEGO.
Ole didn’t know it yet, but a revolution in the toy business was coming. And LEGO was ready for it.
Chapter 2: Plastic
Why was there a revolution in toy making?
It was because of one thing: plastic.
After World War II, companies began to use plastic to make toys that used to be made from wood. Plastic was cheaper than wood. It was lighter and easier to work with. It could also be made in a variety of bright colors.
The pieces for plastic toys were made using something called an injection molding machine. In 1946, LEGO bought its first one.
Here’s how it worked.
Hot liquid plastic was pumped through the machine into a mold. After a very short time, the plastic cooled enough that it held the shape of the mold. Then the plastic piece was ejected from the mold and new liquid plastic could be pumped in to make more pieces.
This was a very different way of making toys. Ole’s wooden toys had to be carved by hand. They took a long time to make. With machines, it was possible to make thousands of toys in just one day.
One of LEGO’s first plastic toys was a small copy of a tractor made by a farm equipment company. LEGO spent more than a year designing the molds for the tractor’s various parts. The designs and injection molding machine and molds cost LEGO about three times more than the price of a real tractor. But the plastic tractor was a big hit for LEGO. It could be bought already assembled. Or it could be bought in a kit that let children put together the tractor themselves.
Ole wanted to make toys that children could play with creatively. For years, LEGO had been making wooden blocks that children could stack. They were fun, to a point. But towers of blocks toppled over easily and a child couldn’t really build anything very reallooking with them.
Could Ole use plastic to create something more fun?
The first injection molding machine that Ole bought happened to come with some little plastic building bricks. They were samples to show what the machine could do. Called SelfLocking Building Bricks, they had been made by a British company called Kiddicraft. Little studs on the top of each brick could fit into the hollow bottom of another brick. Once connected, the bricks held together.
Ole and Godtfred were impressed with these selflocking bricks. They could be put together in all kinds of ways. So Ole tried making some plastic bricks that were similar to Kiddicraft’s but ones that he thought were designed better. They had squaredoff corners and flattened tops on the studs.
Unfortunately, these first LEGO bricks did not work as well as Ole and Godtfred had hoped. They cracked. They didn’t fit together snugly enough. If Ole’s bricks didn’t snap together perfectly—-and unsnap easily—-building with them would be no fun. And, of course, the bricks would be of no use if they broke.
So new bricks were designed. The inside of each brick had hollow tubes that the studs on another brick could grasp much more firmly. New molds were made and out came new little plastic bricks. Ole was so confident about the new type of brick that he got a patent for it.
Were they an immediate success?
In 1951, Ole became sick. He was now sixty years old. He knew that the company needed a younger man to run it. He chose Godtfred. After all, Godtfred had worked alongside his father since childhood. He had designed many of LEGO’s first products.
Although Godtfred was head of the company, Ole stayed involved throughout the early 1950s. He insisted that an even larger factory be built. And he watched over the final design changes that were made to LEGO bricks.
Amazingly, the basic brick (called the 2x4) has not changed since then. The LEGO bricks that are made now will fit with bricks from 1958!
Ole passed away in 1958 just as the new improved bricks were introduced. From 1958 through 1960, LEGO sent free sample boxes to toy stores to show how well the bricks fit together. They contained only two bricks. Today, those original little LEGO boxes are collectors’ items.
And then in 1960, disaster struck once more. You may find it hard to believe, but there was yet another fire! The factory didn’t burn down this time, but all the plans and drawings for the old wooden toys were destroyed. An important part of LEGO’s early history was lost.
After this, Godtfred decided that it was time to completely stop making wooden toys. The company would only make plastic LEGO bricks.