“The History of The Lego Group, Part I” by S.M. O’Connor

Introduction

LEGO® bricks are all part of the compatible LEGO® System in Play, meaning that they can easily be combined into constructs that can just as easily be dismantled, providing children, as well as adult fans of LEGO® (A.F.O.L.), opportunities to build innovative creations, and, The LEGO Group hopes, for children to learn through play.  This is the story of a Danish carpenter who went from being a maker of furniture to a maker of toys, and still later expanded from the manufacture of wooden toys to the manufacture of toys in both wood and plastic; it is the story of his family, who built on the foundations he gave them to parlay one division of LEGO into the largest toy manufacturer in the world (by revenue) and to open theme parks around the world; and it is the story of an English inventor who was ahead of his time and created the first plastic brick construction toy that inspired the LEGO brick and the similar toys manufactured by The LEGO Group’s many imitators.

 

The History of The LEGO Group, Part I (1932-1969)[1]

 

Ole Kirk Christiansen (1891-1958), the founder of LEGO A/S (doing business as The LEGO Group), was a carpenter in Billund, Denmark.  Naturally, he made his living by making furniture but shortly after he entered middle age, in a time of economic turmoil worldwide, he became a toymaker.  In 1932, a few years into the Great Depression, he made what provided to be the momentous decision for his family and his town when he started to make (wooden) toys.  That same year, his third son, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen (1919-1995) began to work in the family business at the age of twelve.  In 1934, Ole Kirk Christiansen held a contest with his workers to give his company a new name and chose his own entry: Lego (marketed as LEGO).  This is derived from the Danish phrase leg godt, which means “play well.”  In 1935, LEGO produced its first wooden toy duck.

276-10

Figure 1 Credit: Courtesy of The LEGO Group Caption: In 1932, carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen (1891-1958) began to manufacture wooden toys. The 1935 Duck is one of the most iconic wooden toys from The LEGO Group.

first LEGO productline 1932Figure 2 Credit: Courtesy of The LEGO Group Caption: In the beginning the company produced a wide variety of products – not only toys. Here is a line-up of products from 1932.

IMG_7282

Figure 3 Credit: Courtesy of The LEGO Group Caption: The LEGO Group’s motto is “Det bedste er ikke for godt” in Danish or “Only the best is good enough” in English. The motto dates back to 1932.

woodworking factory 1930s

Figure 4 Credit: Courtesy of The LEGO Group Caption: The LEGO Group’s woodworking factory in the 1930s.

 

 

 

By 1939, LEGO had ten employees.  In 1940, Nazi Germany invaded the Kingdom of Denmark.  Godtfred Kirk Christiansen chose to remain in Denmark and become a company manager rather than go to Germany to study as he had planned.  An accidental fire in 1942 consumed the workshop, toys, and designs, but O.K. Christiansen built a larger factory to replace it and began to produce wooden toys again. By 1943, the company had forty employees.

woodworking factory 1940s

Figure 5 Credit: Courtesy of The LEGO Group Caption: The LEGO Group’s woodworking factory in Billund, Denmark in the 1940s.

 

 

In 1947, O.K. Christiansen acquired a plastic injection-molding machine, the Windsor SH Plastic Moulding Machine, and used it to manufacture plastic teddy bears, bricks, and tractors.  It cost 30,000 Danish crowns when the company’s revenue that year was 450,000 Danish crowns.

The supplier provided him with samples of thermoplastic Self-Locking Building Bricks, a line of construction toys invented by Hilary Harry Fisher Page (1904-1957) and manufactured in the United Kingdom by his company Kiddicraft under the brand Sensible Toys.  [Page was also the author of two books: Playtime in the First Five Years, published in 1938, and Toys in Wartime, published in 1942.  Allen & Unwin[2] published a second edition of Playtime in the First Five Years in 1953.]  O.K. Christiansen and G.K. Christiansen examined the bricks carefully.  In 1949, they introduced the Automatic Binding Brick with either four studs or eight.  This first LEGO brick was distinguishable from the Kiddicraft brick because it had a slightly different size and a slightly different shape.[3]

Automatic binding brick first LEGO Brick 1949

Figure 6 Credit: Courtesy of The LEGO Group Caption: The first building brick from The LEGO Group was the Automatic Binding Brick from 1949.

 

 

Both wooden and plastic toys The LEGO Group manufactured in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s reflected Denmark’s technological advances and social change.  In the Danish toy market from 1951 to ’59, the popularity of The LEGO Group’s toy plastic Ferguson tractor reflected the popularity of real Ferguson tractors amongst Danish farmers in the mid-20th Century.

During a five-year-long period that started in 1948, the Kingdom of Denmark benefitted from the Marshall Plan (formally the European Recovery Program), under which Danish farmers were able to purchase modern equipment, including American-made Ferguson tractors.[4]  The money was mostly used to buy American goods.

Development of the LEGO Ferguson tractor proved difficult.  It took over a year for The LEGO Group’s factory to produce its first toy Ferguson.  The cost of producing the technical drawings and molds were such that the first Ferguson toy cost the company DKK 30,000 at a time when an actual Ferguson tractor cost DKK 9,180. The retail price of each toy Ferguson was DKK 13.  It was The LEGO Group’s plastic-molding department’s first success.  Cultivators, ploughs, and other implements could be hitched to the back of both plastic Ferguson tractors and wooden tractors.

On his thirty-first birthday (July 8, 1950) Godtfred Kirk Christiansen became Junior Managing Director.  In 1950, the year after the company had introduced the Automatic Binding Brick (the forerunner of the Lego® brick introduced in 1958), the company introduced LEGO Plastic Building Bricks.  These were larger than Automatic Binding Bricks.  Intended for children ages one-to-five, The Lego Group marketed them as “the perfect bricks for day care centers.”  Thus, LEGO Plastic Building Bricks were forerunners of LEGO® DUPLO® bricks.  Packages of the LEGO Plastic Building Bricks had pictures of Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen as a toddler.  This was the grandson of LEGO Group founder Ole Kirk Christiansen and son of Godtfred Kirk Christiansen.  In 1951, LEGO began to produce building bases with 10 x 20 studs and the Ferguson plastic tractor as either a construction toy or as a finished product.

 

Ferguson-drawingFigure 7 Credit: Courtesy of The LEGO Group Caption: This is a 1950 technical drawing of the LEGO Ferguson tractor, by designer Knud Møller, who later developed the LEGO wheel.

276-20Figure 8 Credit: Courtesy of The LEGO Group Caption: The LEGO Group manufactured two versions of the plastic Ferguson tractor: a finished model and a building set (pictured) which children could assemble themselves.

Tractor

Figure 9 Credit: Courtesy of The LEGO Group Caption: The LEGO Group produced a limited number of transparent plastic Ferguson tractor toys, which were exhibition models in toy shops throughout Denmark.

 

 

 

The next year, 1952, O.K. Christiansen made a major capital investment with the construction of a new LEGO plant at a cost of 355,000 Danish crowns.  In 1953, Ole and Godtfred changed the name of the Automatic Binding Brick to the LEGO Mursten (LEGO Bricks).

 

1112-22Figure 10 Credit: Courtesy of The LEGO Group Caption: In 1953, the Automatic Binding Bricks got a new name: “LEGO Mursten” (“LEGO Bricks”). The name “LEGO” is printed inside all bricks.

 

 

The name LEGO began to appear inside all LEGO bricks.  In 1953, the company filed to trademark the name LEGO in Denmark and the Danish Government accepted the LEGO registration on May 1, 1954.

In 1954, during a trip to the United Kingdom, G.K. Christiansen had a conversation with a purchasing agent aboard a ferry that led him to develop the LEGO System.  At the 1955 Nuremburg International Toy Fair (which is the largest toy fair in the world), Ole and Godtfred Christiansen introduced the LEGO brick System of Play based around a town square with twenty-eight sets and eight vehicles.

That same year, The LEGO Group began to export on a large scale for the first time.  The recipient country was a fellow Scandinavian state: the Kingdom of Sweden.

In 1956, G.K. Christiansen became Managing Director.  That same year, The LEGO Group produced plastic motorcyclist and bicyclist figures.  The LEGO Group also established its first foreign subsidiary to sell LEGO toys in a foreign country: LEGO Spielwaren GmbH in Hohenwestedt, West Germany.  The following year, The LEGO Group established LEGO Schweiz in Switzerland.

Interlocking Bricks

That same year, 1957, The LEGO Group invented the LEGO® interlocking system. This involved the introduction of tubes inside the bricks.   The studs on the bottom brick interlock with the tubes inside the brick on top.  In January of 1958, the company patented the LEGO® interlocking brick toy system of stud-and-tube coupling.

Lego rsrapport 10.03.03 © Niels ge Skovbo, FOKUSFigure 11 Credit: Courtesy of The LEGO Group Caption: LEGO® bricks being stacked.

patent pÃ¥ LEGO klodsenFigure 12 Credit: Courtesy of The LEGO Group Caption: The original patent application for the LEGO® Brick in 1958. The LEGO® Brick introduced a new coupling system enabled stable construction play while still being easy to disassemble – the clutch-power.

 

Upon his father’s death in March of 1958, G.K. Christiansen became President of LEGO.  In 1958, The LEGO Group also began to produce sloping roof tile bricks.  By that point, the company had 150 employees in Billund.

The company set up British Lego, Ltd. and began to sell LEGO® bricks in the U.K. in 1959. The LEGO Group also established LEGO France, LEGO Belgium, and LEGO Sweden.

That same year, LEGO began to sell Bilo-fix wood and plastic toys.  In 1960, after a fire destroyed the factory, consuming most of the wooden toys in stock, G.K. Christiansen decided to discontinue the production of wooden toys as well as plastic toys that were not part of the LEGO® interlocking brick toy system.  That same year, G. K. Christiansen bought out his three brothers: Johannes, Karl, and Gerhardt.[5]

In 1961, The LEGO Group signed a sales and manufacturing licensing agreement with Samsonite that covered the American and Canadian markets.  After the licensing agreement expired in 1972, The LEGO Group took direct control of producing and marketing toys for the American and Canadian markets.

production 1961Figure 13 Credit: Courtesy of The LEGO Group Caption: The LEGO Group’s production facility in Billund, Denmark in 1961.

 

 

LEGOLAND® Billund, the first LEGOLAND® theme park, opened in 1968.  It is located near the original LEGO® factory in Billund, Denmark.  The factory workers had found it distracting to have so many visitors to the plant, which led to the realization they needed a place to show off their products and entertain visitors.  The number of visitors that first year was, at 625,000, more than double G. K. Christiansen’s prediction that up to 300,000 people would visit annually.  From the beginning, the Christiansen family had a tradition of greeting visitors at the entrance.

 

LEGOLANDFigure 14 Credit: Courtesy of The LEGO Group Caption: LEGOLAND® Billund opened its gates on June 7, 1968 and attracted 625,000 visitors in its first season, 3,000 of whom came on the opening day.

 

 

The LEGO Group and Samsonite (under license from The LEGO Group) manufactured two similar product lines in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s before The LEGO Group introduced LEGO® DUPLO® in 1969.  Under a sales and manufacturing licensing agreement between The LEGO Group and Samsonite signed in 1961 and discontinued in 1972, the luggage manufacturer imported or manufactured and marketed LEGO® toys in the U.S.A. and Canada, including Lego Jumbo Bricks.  The LEGO Group experimented with 2:1 scale bricks that fit the LEGO System of Play.  If the larger bricks had hollowed-out studs, a standard-sized LEGO® brick could be plugged into the hollow studs.  The LEGO Group dubbed the new 2:1 scale brick “DUPLO,” with the name derived from duplex, the Latin word for double as a reference to a DUPLO® brick being twice the size of a standard-sized LEGO® brick.  In 1967, The LEGO Group patented this new method of combining large and small elements.  The next year, The LEGO Group tested DUPLO® bricks on the Swedish market.  After some fine tuning, the company introduced the DUPLO® in markets worldwide in 1969.

 

LEGO and DUPLO bricksFigure 15 Credit: Courtesy of The LEGO Group Caption: In 1969, The LEGO Group introduced the LEGO® DUPLO® brick. The word “DUPLO” was inspired by these bricks having dimensions double the size of bricks from the LEGO System of Play.  They are made for toddlers and other small tykes from eighteen months old to five years old.

Video Title: The Lego Story: 80th Anniversary Video by the Lego Group

Credits: BrickPress and The LEGO Group Caption: A seventeen-minute-long, animated film documenting important highlights from LEGO Group history from 1932 to 1968.

ENDNOTES

[1] This is a revision of an article I originally posted on the news Website Examiner.com Chicago.

[2] Allen & Unwin is best known in the U.S.A. as the original publisher of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.

[3] In 1977, Hilary Page’s widow, Oreline, sold Kiddicraft to the Hestair Group.  In 1981, Hestair-Kiddicraft sold Page’s Self-Locking Building Brick patents to The Lego Group for £45,000.  In 1989, Hestair sold Kiddicraft to Fisher Price, which used Kiddicraft brand name for a few years.

[4] Named after U.S. Secretary of State (and former U.S. Army Chief of Staff and U.S. Secretary of Defense) George Marshall, Jr. (1880-1959), who outlined the proposal during a speech to the graduating class of Harvard University on June 5, 1947, the Marshall Plan involved the U.S. Government gave grants of $13,000,000,000 to European governments to restore the economies of societies that had been ravaged by the Second Great World War.

[5] I hope they invested these funds wisely and do not harbor a grudge against the side of the family descended from the brother who dedicated his energy to the manufacture of plastic toys and parlayed it into a multi-billion-dollar fortune.  Equally, I hope the wealthy family members do not look down less affluent relatives.

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