Denmark hasn’t given the world much... bacon, beer and Victor Borge are the first things that spring to mind. Then there’s Bang & Olufsen, the high-end home entertainment company. Tom Kristensen is the most successful Le Mans driver ever, with eight wins. Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, is also a Dane. But nothing comes close in popularity than a little plastic brick that can snap together with other little plastic bricks.
Yes, Lego, the toy that has enthralled millions of kids (and grown-ups) since the middle of the 20th century, comes from the land of Hans Christian Anderson. Those Danes have really embraced their inner child. The name is derived from leg godt, Danish for play well. Lego sprang out of a carpenter’s workshop in the small town of Billund, 150 miles west of Copenhagen. Its creator, Ole Kirk Christiansen (born April 7, 1891), was going through a lean patch in 1932. Business was slow, so he started making wooden pull toys that eventually sold under the Lego brand. This turned out to be a good idea. But two events after World War II would make Lego explode.
Christiansen bought one of the first injection molding machines in Denmark. It cost 30,000 Danish Kroner, twice the profit he made the year before. He started making similar pull toys, but in plastic. Around the same time he came across the Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building brick, invented by a Brit, Hilary Harry Fisher Page, one of the first companies to apply child psychology to toy design.
Aircraft conceptualized and built by Conrad Bidrawn.
If one studied the diagrams from the United Kingdom Patent Office, it is patently obvious that Christiansen didn’t change the idea much to create Lego bricks. Oddly, it seems Kiddicraft did not seek any legal restitution, but in a kind of intellectual copyright karma, the Danish firm has since been embroiled in legal wranglings with other companies around the world that have made products very much like Lego. Page committed suicide in 1957 and never saw his idea become successful. He supplied the bricks, but Christiansen and his son Godtfred Kirk laid the foundations for an empire.
The first Lego bricks went on sale just in Denmark. And sold terribly. Plastic was not as well regarded as wood. Godtfred came up with an idea, a system of play that involved a town plan where children could build houses, garages, fire stations, etc., and form streets. He took the bricks and the system to the 1955 Nuremberg Toy Fair and soon after, Lego was exporting to other European countries, then slowly fanning out across the globe. The basic design was also changed in 1958 to incorporate tubes inside the brick, improving stability and stack-ability. All subsequent Lego bricks are compatible with those made from that time.
Since then, it’s been pretty much an upward trajectory. Assuming a world population of six billion, there are enough Lego bricks for every person to have 62. The company is also the world’s top maker of tires, producing 306 million a year for little Lego wheels (if any environmentalists are having heart palpitations, most Lego stuff is kept and passed on to the next generation, not to some landfill. And Lego factories only have about one percent waste material). The largest set is the Taj Mahal, with 5,992 bricks. People have built a V8 engine, a Space Shuttle, a scale model of downtown Detroit and life-size cars out of Lego bricks.
The first Legoland theme park opened in Billund in 1968. Legolands are now in England, California and Germany, with plans for others in Florida, Dubai and Malaysia. Tie-ins with film franchises like Star Wars, Harry Potter and Toy Story have helped keep the product at the forefront in youngsters’ minds. Another major development was the introduction of human figures in 1974 (currently used to deliciously subversive comic effect in Robot Chicken). There are even Lego video games, which kind of defeats the purpose of building three-dimensional objects, but that’s progress.
When Google was still a start-up, some of its hardware was housed in cases made from Lego bricks (they’re good at resisting heat). Coincidentally, one of Google’s founders is also called Page. Perhaps we like Lego because it illustrates what Buddhists and quantum physicists have been trying to tell us: Everything is connected to everything else.
Assuming a world population of six billion, there are enough lego bricks in existence for every person to have 62.