Lego history

Lego history

One of the super-cool sculptures at the zoo

This weekend I ushered in 2017 with a mini-adventure in my new city. As the sun rose on New Year’s Eve I found myself donning a blue raincoat and a good pair of walking shoes, braced for a morning of fun. Feeling energized, I headed to the Phoenix Zoo and caught the Lego exhibit. If these sculptures make their way to your neighborhood I highly recommend you check it out. Each animal is beautifully engineered – the structure of the hummingbird stands out especially – and beside it is a sign noting the hours taken to assemble all the Legos. It’s truly amazing and educational! But as I toured I realized I didn’t know a lot about these iconic toys. Join me as we learn a bit about Lego history.

These little bricks occupy such a special part of many of our childhood memories, it’s easy to think that they’ve always been around. Who can imagine a time that pre-dates Legos? Well if you grew up before the Depression your childhood experiences were Lego-less. Founded in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen, in his modest workshop, the company didn’t automatically start making Legos as we know today right off the bat (that happened in 1958). So what happened in between?

Do you know what Lego means? It’s an abbreviations of two Danish words that mean “play well.”

Ole’s background is (big surprise) in carpentry and joinery. The fledgling company found its stride producing ladders, ironing boards and wooden toys. Kind of an interesting combination when you think about it and I can’t help but imagine that the toys were his passion projects. Contributing to some of these toy projects was Ole’s twelve year old son. How cool would that have been to be Ole’s son in that moment? A real life Big.

Less than five years after the company is founded they have their first big toy success: a wooden duck. Inspired by this taste of popularity, Lego released a construction game called Kirk’s Sandgame. On the heels of this excitement, setbacks occur (WWII occupation and a factory-wide fire). But lovers of history, you know what happens next – sheer determination and inventiveness persevere.

Following the end of the war, the Lego company becomes the first in Denmark to have a plastic injection-molding machine. The factory continued to grow following the addition of this new innovation; they were now five times larger than when they started. The combination of new influences and resources culminated in the 1949 introduction of the Automatic Binding Blocks. Kind of a long name, but you can consider these the parents of our modern Lego.

Other than play well… Lego also means “I put together” in Latin

In 1950 Ole’s son, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, is appointed Junior Vice President at age thirty. Let’s take a moment to consider that fact. That seems like such a progressive decision given the time frame. Granted, as we know, Godtfred had certainly paid his dues and risen through the ranks – but a super young executive must have seemed a bit shocking to mid-century business sensibilities. In today’s world Forbe’s Top 30 Under 30 list is highly anticipated. But this act of curating young movers and shakers is a relatively modern pursuit. How cool is it that Lego was so ahead of its time? And how fitting is it for a company focused on the young to be guided by the young? I think that heritage is why Lego remains so focused on play.

Let’s transport back to the mid-1950’s. En route to England, newly minted Junior VP Godtfred chats with a fellow passenger about toys. That spirited debate becomes the inspiration for the Lego System of Play, first exported to Sweden. Heart filled with excitement, Godtfred showcases it at a German toy fair. The public reaction is not positive. (Which surprises me!) Again, Lego’s momentum is not deterred. On the 26th anniversary of the company, the modern Lego design is patented. Sadly, that year Ole passes away but his legacy is now resting in the capable hands of Godtfred.

Lego history

Legos in all their beauty, photo by Arto Alanenpaa

Lego’s vision for their products:
Unlimited play potential
For girls and for boys
Fun for every age
Year-round play
Healthy, quiet play
Long hours of play
Development, imagination, creativity
The more LEGO, the greater the value
Extra sets available
Quality in every detail

This well-formed vision authored by Godtfred in the 1960’s guided the company well. In 1967 roughly 20 million Lego sets sold in that year alone! Capitalizing on this surge of popularity, LegoLand opened a year later to huge fan fare. In the first year alone a little over half a million Lego enthusiasts took their imagination even further with a visit to the adventure park.

Lego had become the future of the construction toy industry, which first formed at the turn of the century. How did it capture that spot and sustain its ranking? I think there’s something special about Legos, something simply beautiful about the design that allowed us to take our imagination to the next level. For a simple brick, it really is only limited by the builder’s dream (as my recent trip to the zoo just proved!).

Considering the full story of Lego history, what do you think shaped Lego’s future the most? The influence of a twelve year old apprentice who had the ear of the CEO? The crafting background of its founder? The decision to purchase an innovative machine that leveraged a new super material? Let us know in the comments and keep on building!

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