Space, Castle, and Town LEGO "minifigs"

LEGO is a Danish toy company best known for its line of interconnecting plastic bricks. LEGO's name has become so synonymous with their flagship toy that many use the words "LEGO" or "LEGOs" to refer to the bricks themselves, and even to any plastic bricks resembling LEGO bricks, although the LEGO company discourages such dilution of their trademark name.

History of LEGO

LEGO has not always been the refined system of high-quality plastic building bricks that it is today. It had humble beginnings in the workshop of Ole Kirk Christiansen, a poor carpenter from Billund, Denmark. His innovative family-owned business would one day grow to become one of the most well-respected toy companies in the world.

The company's name was coined by Christiansen in 1934, from the Danish phrase "leg godt", meaning "play well". It is a myth that the word also means "I put together" or "I assemble" in Latin. "Lego" is in fact a Latin word, but it means "I read".


In 1916, Christiansen opened a woodworking shop in Billund, and earned his living by constructing houses and furniture for farmers in the region, with the help of a small staff of apprentices. His workshop burned down in 1924 when a fire, lit by his two young sons, ignited some wood shavings. Undaunted, Ole Kirk took the disaster as an opportunity to construct a larger workshop, and worked towards expanding his business even further; however, the Great Depression would soon have an impact on his livelihood. In finding ways to minimize production costs, Ole Kirk began producing miniature versions of his products as design aids. It was these miniature stepladders and ironing boards that inspired him to begin producing toys.

Ole Kirk's shop started making wooden pull toys, piggy banks, cars and trucks. He enjoyed a modest amount of success, but families were poor and often unable to afford such toys. Farmers in the area sometimes traded food in exchange for his toys; Ole Kirk found he had to continue producing practical furniture in addition to toys in order to stay in business. In the mid-1930s, the Yo-yo toy fad gave him a brief period of activity, until its sudden collapse. Once again, Ole Kirk turned disadvantage to his favor, turning the disused Yo-yo parts into wheels for a toy truck. His son Godtfred began working for him, and taking an active role in the company.

When plastic came into widespread use, Ole Kirk kept with the times and began producing plastic toys. One of the first modular toys to be produced was a truck which could be taken apart and re-assembled. It wasn't until 1949 that the interlocking plastic bricks, which made the company famous, were developed. These "Automatic Binding Bricks", manufactured from cellulose acetate, were developed in the spirit of traditional wooden blocks that could be stacked upon one another; the revolutionary concept, however, was that these plastic bricks could be "locked" together. They had several round "studs" on top, and a hollow rectangular bottom. They would stick together, but not so tightly that they couldn't be pulled apart. In 1953, the bricks were given a new name: "LEGO Mursten", or "LEGO Bricks".

Despite initial criticism, the Kirk Christiansens persevered. By 1954, Godtfred had become the junior managing director of LEGO. It was his conversation with an overseas buyer that struck the idea of a toy system. Godtfred saw the immense potential in LEGO bricks to become a system for creative play, but the bricks still had some problems from a technical standpoint: their "locking" ability was limited, and they were not very versatile. It wasn't until 1958 that the modern-day brick design was developed. The bricks were improved with hollow tubes in the underside of the brick. This added support in base enabling much better locking ability and improved versatility. That same year, Ole Kirk Christiansen died, and Godtfred inherited leadership of the company.


LEGO would mature substantially over the coming years. In 1959, the Futura division was founded within the company. Its small staff was responsible for generating ideas for new sets. Another warehouse fire struck the LEGO company in 1960, consuming most of the company's inventory of wooden toys; fortunately, the LEGO brick line was strong enough by then that the company decided to abandon production of wooden toys. By the end of the year, the staff of the LEGO company had grown to four hundred and fifty.

1961 and 1962 saw the introduction of the first LEGO wheels, an addition which expanded the potential for building cars, trucks, busses and other vehicles from LEGO bricks. Also during this time, LEGO introduced toys specifically targeted towards the pre-school market, and made an arrangement allowing Samsonite to begin producing and selling LEGO products in Canada, an arrangement which would continue until 1988. There were more than fifty sets of bricks in the LEGO System of Play by this time.

In 1963, cellulose acetate, the plastic material used to create LEGO bricks, was dropped in favor of a more stable material. Cellulose acetate was known to have problems with discoloration and warping; its successor was acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS plastic, which is still used as of 2003. ABS had a number of additional advantages over cellulose acetate: it is more resistant to heat, acids, salt, and other chemicals, and is non-toxic. LEGO bricks manufactured from ABS plastic in 1963 still hold most of their shape and color forty years later, and still neatly interlock with LEGO bricks manufactured in 2003. 1964 was the first time that instruction manuals were included in LEGO sets.

One of LEGO's most successful series, the LEGO train system, was first released in 1966. The original train sets included a 4.5-volt motor and rails; two years later, a 12-volt motor was introduced. On June 7, 1968, the LEGOLAND Park in Billund was opened. This theme park featured elaborate models of miniature towns, built entirely from LEGO bricks. The three-acre park attracted 625,000 visitors in its first year alone. During the next twenty years, the park would grow to more than eight times its original size, and would eventually average close to a million paying visitors per year. More than eighteen million LEGO sets were sold in 1968.

In 1969, the DUPLO system went on sale. This was a newly developed system, targeted towards younger children; DUPLO bricks are much larger than LEGO bricks, making them safer for very young children, but the two systems are compatible: LEGO bricks can be fitted neatly onto DUPLO bricks, making the transition to the LEGO system easily made as children outgrow their DUPLO bricks.

The 1960s were such a period of growth for the LEGO company that by 1970, one of the biggest questions they faced was how best to manage and control its expanding market.


By 1970, the LEGO company had a staff of more than 900. The coming decades would mark considerable expansion into new frontiers of toy making and marketing. LEGO began to target the female market with the introduction of furniture pieces and doll houses in 1971. The LEGO universe expanded its transportation possibilities with the addition of boat and ship sets, with hull pieces that actually floated, in 1972. Meanwhile, Godfred Kirk Christiansen's son, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, joined the managerial staff of the company, after earning business degrees in Switzerland and Denmark. (Kjeld's surname is spelled with a "K", instead of a "Ch", due to a mistake on his birth certificate; he kept the spelling.) One of Kjeld's first achievements with the company was the foundation of manufacturing facilities, as well as a research and development department that would be responsible for keeping the company's manufacturing methods up to date. Large, posable human figures made an appearance in 1974, with a "LEGO family" set, which went on to become the biggest seller at the time; the same year, an early version of the "minifig" minuature LEGO person was introduced, which were not as posable. A LEGO production plant was opened in Enfield, Connecticut in the United States.

"Expert Series" sets were first introduced in 1975, geared towards experienced LEGO builders. This line soon developed into the "Expert Builder" sets, released in 1977. These technical sets featured moving parts such as gears, cogs, axles and levers, and permitted the construction of realistic models such as automobiles, with functional steering and lifelike engine movements. Finally, the LEGO world came together in 1978 with the addition of the LEGO "minifig" that is still known today. These small LEGO people have posable arms and legs, and a friendly smile. The figure was used in many varieties of LEGO sets, allowing consumers to construct elaborate towns with buildings, roads, vehicles, trains, and boats, at the same scale, and populated with the smiling minifig LEGO citizen.

Another significant expansion to the LEGO line occurred in 1979, with the creation of LEGO Space sets. Astronaut minifigs, rockets, lunar rovers, and spaceships populated this popular series. FABULAND, a fantasy series targeted towards younger children, debuted in this year as well, as did the SCALA series, featuring jewelry elements marketed towards young girls. Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen became the president of LEGO in this year; another decade concluded with LEGO still going strong.

LEGO bricks had always had a constructive potential that was seen by some educators as being an invaluable asset in helping children to develop creativity and problem-solving abilities. Since the 1960s, teachers had been using LEGO bricks in the classroom for a variety of reasons. In 1980, LEGO established the Educational Products Department (eventually renamed LEGO DACTA, in 1989), specifically to expand the educational possibilities of their toys. A packing and assembly factory opened in Switzerland, followed by another in Jutland, Denmark, which manufactured LEGO tires.

The "Expert Builder" series matured in 1982, becoming the "Technic" series. August 13 of that year marked the LEGO company's fiftieth anniversary; the book "50 Years of Play" was published to commemmorate the occasion. In the following year, the DUPLO system was expanded to include sets for even younger audiences, particularly infants; new sets included baby rattles and figures with adjustable limbs. In another year, LEGO minifig citizens gained a realm of knights and horses, with the introduction of the first Castle sets. Light & Sound sets made their appearance in 1986; these sets included a battery pack with electrical lights, buzzers, and other accessories to add another dimension of realism to LEGO creations. Also that year, LEGO's educational division produced the Technic Computer Control, which was an educational system whereby Technic robots, trucks, and other motorized models could be controlled with a computer. Manaus, Brazil gained a LEGO factory in this year, as well.

In 1987, the Technic line was expanded with the addition of pneumatic components.

This LEGO model of a composite of London, including a motorized model of a Tube train controlled by computers, is in Legoland Windsor.

In August of 1988, thirty-eight children from fourteen different countries took part in the first LEGO World Cup building contest, held in Billund. That same year, LEGO Canada was established. The LEGO line grew again in 1989 with the release of the LEGO Pirates series, which featured a variety of pirate ships, deserted islands and treasure; the series was also the first to depart from the standard minifig smiley face to create an array of piratical characters. LEGO's Educational Products Department was renamed LEGO DACTA in this year; the name is derived from the Greek word "didactic", which roughly means "the study of the learning process." MIT's Dr. Seymour Papert, from the Laboratory of Computer Learning, was named "LEGO Professor of Learning Research," after his ongoing work in linking the Logo programming language with LEGO products.

A new series designed for advanced builders was released in 1990. Three Model Team sets, including a race car and off-road vehicle, featured a level of detail and realism not previously seen in any LEGO series. Where Technic was mechanically accurate, Model Team was visually and stylistically accurate. The LEGO company became one of the top ten toy companies in this year; the only toy company in Europe to be among the top ten. LEGOLAND Billund had more than one million visitors in this year, for the first time in its history. The first-ever "LEGO Professor of Business Dynamics", Xavier Gilbert, was appointed at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland. LEGO Malaysia was also established in 1990. LEGO Train engineers gained the ability to control the speed and direction of their LEGO trains with the introduction of a speed regulator in 1991.

Two Guinness records were set in 1992 using LEGO products: A castle made from 400,000 LEGO bricks, and measuring 4.45 meters by 5.22 meters, was built on Swedish television, and a LEGO train 545 meters in length, with three locomotives, was constructed. DUPLO was augmented with the addition of the Toolo line featuring a screwdriver, wrench, nuts and bolts; the Paradisa line, targeted towards girls, brought a variety of new pastel colors into the LEGO system. 1993 brought a DUPLO train and a parrot-shaped "brickvac" that could pick LEGO pieces up off the floor.

A model of St Paul's Cathedral in London as seen in Legoland Windsor. This is made of thousands of LEGO bricks. The rotating model of the London Eye in the background is also made of LEGO bricks.

Manufacturing LEGO

LEGO brick design can be deceptively simple. The vast array of pieces in the LEGO System of Play seem to require no explanation; since they are made for children, they are designed to be so straightforward that even children require little or no instruction in how to use them. To achieve such apparent simplicity, a considerable amount of engineering and precision manufacturing must go into the creation of each LEGO piece.

One of the key features of LEGO bricks throughout their history is that they are, first and foremost, part of a system. Each new series and set that is released is compatible with the rest of the system; LEGO pieces, regardless of their size, shape, or function, fit together with all other LEGO pieces in some way. The gear and motor mechanisms that come with the most advanced Technic sets, designed for teenagers, can be almost effortlessly attached to the DUPLO bricks designed for three-year-old children. This characteristic enables the LEGO system to grow and adapt as children get older; the infinite possibilities presented by the system keep many adults fascinated, as well.

Manufacturing of LEGO bricks occurs at a number of locations around the world. As of 2003, molding is done at one of two plants in Denmark and Switzerland. Brick decorations and packaging may be done at plants in Denmark, Switzerland, South Korea, the Czech Republic or the USA. Annual production of LEGO bricks averages approximately 20 billion (2 × 1010) per year, or about 2.3 million per hour.

Bricks, beams, axles, minifigs, and all other pieces in the LEGO system are manufactured to an exacting degree of tolerance. When snapped together, pieces must have just the right amount of "clutch power"; they must stay together until pulled apart. They cannot be too easy to pull apart, or the result will be LEGO creations that are unstable; they cannot be too difficult to pull apart, since the disassembly of one creation in order to build another is part of the LEGO appeal. In order for pieces to have just the right amount of "clutch power", LEGO pieces are manufactured to within two thousandths of a millimetre (0.002 mm), or eighty millionths of an inch (0.00008 in).

One of the techniques that helps to maintain this high degree of quality is the small capacity of the molds; some toy companies, in order to cut manufacturing costs, use molds capable of stamping out sixty pieces at a time. LEGO molds generally have a much smaller capacity, and are precision-machined, often costing tens of thousands of dollars. The injection molds are equipped with sensors to detect fluctuations in pressure and temperature, either of which can degrade the quality of the resulting piece. Human inspectors meticulously check the output of the molds, to ensure that there are no significant variations in color or thickness. According to the LEGO company, their molding processes are so accurate that only 18 bricks out of every million fail to meet their stringent standards. It is thanks to this care in manufacturing that LEGO has maintained such a high degree of quality over the decades; it is also part of the reason that pieces manufactured thirty years ago still interlock neatly with pieces manufactured today.

LEGO today

Since it began producing plastic bricks, LEGO has released many thousands of play sets themed on space, pirates, medieval castles, the wild west, cities, the arctic, dinosaurs, robots, suburbia, holiday locations, boats, racing cars, trains, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and more. New pieces are being released constantly, allowing LEGO to become more and more versatile.

There are also motors, gears, lights, noise makers and cameras available to be used with the other LEGO components. There are even bricks that can be programmed with a personal computer to perform very complicated procedures. These programmable bricks are sold under the name LEGO Mindstorms.

In the late 1990s, LEGO brought out a series of new and specialised ranges aimed at particular demographics. The Bionicle range uses Technic pieces and specialist mouldings to create a set of warring action figures for boys, while Belville is a more conventional lego range aimed at girls and featuring large posable figures like those in the Technic range. A LEGO 4 Juniors range features medium-sized figures with jointed arms, and longer legs than the classic minifig LEGO man. In 2003, LEGO introduced a completely new system, Clikits, aimed at girls and consisting of customizable plastic jewellery and accessories.

LEGO has now been used for many things far beyond a toy. It has developed a cult following of people who have used LEGO to make sculptures, very large mosaics, and complex machines. Some sculptures use hundreds of thousands of pieces and weigh tens of kilograms. Mosaics can be the size of large wall hangings. People have used LEGO to create machines such as fully functional padlocks and pendulum clocks. One such LEGO masterpiece actually solves a Rubik's Cube, a task that many humans cannot accomplish.

In order to fit accurately and securely with one another, LEGO bricks are manufactured to an extremely high degree of accuracy, leading to their use in fields such as Computer Vision, where knowing the exact dimensions and relative positions of objects is useful for creating test data.

Some people use LEGO to create movies. One hobby among enthusiasts is to re-create popular scenes from famous movies, using LEGO bricks for the scenery and LEGO play sets as 'actors'. For example, the Monty Python and the Holy Grail DVD contained the "Camelot" musical sequence, interpreted with LEGO minifigs and accessories. Such movies are called LEGO movies or cinema LEGO. These movies became so popular that LEGO itself decided to sell a special LEGO video set called LEGO Studios.

LEGO has also been used by artists, with one of the more notorious examples being Polish artist Zbigniew Libera's LEGO Concentration Camp, a collection of mocked-up concentration camp-themed LEGO sets.

Beyond that, LEGO has been inspiring all kinds of people in a number of different ways. For example, the people at the website combine LEGO with social theory and social theory with LEGO.

''A model of Trafalgar Square in London, as seen in Legoland Windsor. () ''

LEGO built several theme parks known as Legoland around the world. The first of these is located in Billund, Denmark. Others followed: Legoland Windsor in England, Legoland California in Carlsbad, California and Legoland GŁnzburg in Germany.

The 2003 opening of a dedicated Lego shop in Birmingham's Bullring shopping centre (England) was marked by the production of a limited editon, specially- branded, Lego piece.

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