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The history of LEGO: the story behind the iconic toy

02 March 2021

LEGO, first launched in 1932, has gone on to become one of the most popular and beloved toys in the world. We take a look at the history of Lego.

Lego spaceman
The Lego Space minifigure, launched in 1978, is one of the most distinctive Lego pieces. Image cjmacer/Shutterstock.com

When was your last close encounter with a piece of LEGO? With luck, it was at Christmas, watching your grandchildren’s eyes light up as they opened their must-have Star Wars kit, rather than painfully underfoot or while clearing a blocked vacuum cleaner.

But however you’re feeling about LEGO right now, there’s one thing you can’t deny: the stuff is inescapable. There are more LEGO people (‘mini-figures’) in the world than there are real people. And for every one of us there exist 62 Lego pieces. Chances are that some of them once belonged to you.

That all depends, though, on your age and generation. The earliest Lego toys you could possibly have owned as a child was a wooden bus, lorry, aeroplane, or pull-along animal.

The colourful little brick that went on to achieve world domination was not launched until 1949, and the satisfying clicking coupling system was introduced almost ten years later, in 1958. The range of LEGO in the 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond has continuously grown each generation has has an opportunity to enjoy this creative, playful toy.

The origin of LEGO

2022 marks the 90th anniversary of the year when Ole Kirk Christiansen, a carpenter from an impoverished farming family from Billund, Denmark, first began making toys. It was the depth of the Great Depression, regular carpentry work had dried up, and Ole Kirk needed to find some other way of making ends meet. Inspiration struck when he realised the miniature prototypes for items he was looking to manufacture from wood - ironing boards, ladders and the like, at great potential as toys. His toys were an instant success. Two years later, he named his company LEGO by conflating two Danish words leg and godt – which mean ‘play well’.

One reason the company did so well was because of its capacity to adapt – and to snatch triumph from the jaws of disaster. For instance, during the thirties yo-yo craze, LEGO had manufactured vast numbers for Danish children when, suddenly, the craze died. The factory was left with a massive, unsellable yo-yo surplus. Ole, however, had the bright idea of cutting all the yo-yos in half and using them as wheels for a new toy truck design instead. It went on to become a bestseller.

Not until 1949 did LEGO begin manufacturing the plastic construction bricks for which it is now so famous. If you played with such things before then, it wouldn’t have been LEGO at all but the prototype pioneered by a British toymaker called Hilary Page.

For LEGO's 80th anniversary in 2012 Lego produced a short animated film The LEGO Story.

Short film The LEGO Story

Boys' comics of the 1940s

LEGO as a global empire 

Page, a clever, thoughtful man who spent a day a week at different nurseries trying to understand child psychology is one of the unsung heroes of toy history.

His Kiddicraft Company anticipated by a decade the Lego revolution. He patented his first Interlocking Building Cubes (with the distinctive studs on top and the hollows on the bottom that enable them to be stacked firmly) in 1940. But what he failed properly to appreciate was the design’s versatility and potential.

So while Page soon flitted onto other, more apparently promising toy ranges (miniaturised replicas of Heinz soups, Quaker Oats, even spirits and cigarettes), it was the Danes who turned those bricks into a multimillion pound global empire. For the first five years, sales were slow but Ole Kirk was confident that quality would out in the end.

His attention to detail was extraordinary. The story goes that in the early wooden toy days, his son proudly announced that he had saved his father a considerable sum of money. Instead of painting the latest consignment with the regulation three coats of varnish, he had used only two. Far from being pleased, Ole Kirk was furious. He sent his son rushing off to the railway station to bring back the toys and do the job properly.

The tale has become part of company legend. ‘Kun det bedste er godt nok’ it says on the staff t-shirts at the main LEGO factory in Billund, Denmark. ‘Only the best is good enough.’

And they act as if they mean it, too. It’s a cheerful place, the LEGO HQ. Hardworking, yes, but infused with a spirit of childlike wonder: as if the staff – the designers especially – can’t quite believe their luck that in adulthood they’re still involved with the very thing that gave them such pleasure as kids. This spirit extends to the executives: instead of business cards, they hand out Lego mini-figure caricatures of themselves with their details printed on.

The LEGO archives

The highlight of a visit to Billund – even more exciting than the LEGO hotel with its huge Lego dragon or the Legoland theme park, or the museum – is a visit to the locked secret room that has been known to make grown men cry.

Inside this anonymous basement, stored in gun-metal grey filing cabinets, is LEGO's Memory Lane archive -  almost all the toys LEGO has ever made, packed in their original boxes and arranged by year. Often, the last time you’ll have seen this exact packaging was when you opened your Christmas presents all those years ago. It’s like Proust’s madeleine: suddenly it all comes flooding back with incredible intensity and for a delicious moment you’re a child once more.

Beyond the Brick YouTube channel visits Memory Lane with LEGO designer Jan Ryaa.

The Famous Five turns 75

LEGO expands its range

The modern generation of children simply don’t appreciate how spoiled they are for choice.

Today, LEGO fans have a stupendous range of products to satisfy their addiction: starting with the large Duplo bricks for when they’re toddlers; then everything from movie tie-in products (Star Wars, Toy Story etc) to themed playsets such as Atlantis or girl-targeted Belville (complete with inevitable ponies); then, as they grow more sophisticated, the fiendishly complex Technic construction kits, and the even more challenging Mindstorms (where you can build your own working robot).

And if building stuff doesn’t take their fancy, there are always computer apps or online video games.

In our day it was just bricks: square and rectangular ones mainly, used for building houses. As befitted the post-war spirit of renewal, most of the early Lego sets were designed like exercises in town planning.

They came either in metal canisters or cardboard boxes with a range of parts. What made LEGO unique (setting it apart from rivals such as Meccano), was that though rudimentary instructions were included, the main idea was to go off-piste and come up with creations of your own devising.

Build anything 

This is the LEGO most of us remember: jumbled-up parts from different kits that we put together whichever way took our fancy.

A popular eighties TV advert – with a Tommy Cooper soundalike doing the voiceover – captured this spirit. It showed stop-motion animation of a Lego mouse transforming into all sorts of different Lego models so as to escape being eaten by a Lego cat. In other words, if you’ve got enough bricks, you can build absolutely anything with LEGO.

And you can. The places that really take this to the extreme are the Legoland theme parks, such as the original one in Billund. It includes a scale model of the presidential heads on Mount Rushmore (made of 1.5 million bricks) and a 36-foot high sculpture of Chief Sitting Bull made of 1.75 million bricks, which took two years to build. In 2011, LEGO fans spent two months constructing a 38-foot high Christmas tree out of 600,000 bricks at St Pancras station in London, while others staged tableaux using LEGO mini-figures to re-enact some of the year’s key events, from the Libyan civil war to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s ‘first kiss’ on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

Lego's unlimited potential has made it not just a toy for children but a fun and desirable object for adults to collect and play with, something Lego has embraced in recent years with nostalgic sets including a Nintendo Entertainment System no doubt aimed at 80s kids (now in their 40s) and a highly detailed 18+ range that includes model cars and beautiful floral bouquets aimed at a distinctly more mature audience.

A family friend 

Perhaps the main reason LEGO attracts such loyalty is that, despite being a global corporation – with revenues in 2019 of 5.8 billion Euros, and in 2015 replacing Ferrari as Brand Finance's 'Most Powerful Brand' – it still feels less like a ruthlessly commercial brand and more like an old family friend.

LEGO takes great care to nurture this cosy image. Though its first patented design, ironically enough, was a toy gun, it has generally pursued an anti-violence policy. For years (until the pirate series of the late Eighties) its mini-figures weren’t allowed to carry weapons. When a product tie-in with Star Wars was first mooted, there was strong resistance from traditionalists who objected to the word ‘wars’.

LEGO Star Wars and other franchises

The objections to Star Wars were overruled and LEGO's Star Wars kits – together with the Harry Potter ones – are its biggest sellers. But not even these were enough to stave off near-disaster in 2003 when sales fell by 29%, Lego posted losses of £217 million, and the firm faced bankruptcy.

It was rescued by the arrival of its far-sighted, gently spoken CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstorp who realised that Lego needed to go back to basics. He sold off all the parts of the business that weren’t integral to the core product (properties, theme parks, video game development), and reduced the number of Lego components from 7,000 to 3,000. At the same time he devised three key principles – what he called Moments of Truth – that LEGO products should follow.

1. When it’s advertised does it make a child say: ‘I want this!’

2. Once he opens the box, does it make him go: ‘I want more of this’?

3. One month later, does he come back to the toy and still play with it? Or does he put it on the shelf and forget about it?

LEGO and a changing world

As society becomes more climate conscious LEGO has had to make steps to adapt and change with the times. The toy manufacturer has faced criticism in the past for their multimillion pound deal with Shell, which saw branded Shell LEGO petrol stations for sale. Following a 2014 campaign by Greenpeace LEGO announced they would not renew the contract, ending a 50 year partnership. 

As a large plastic manufacturer (estimated to use around 90,000 tonnes a year) LEGO has also faced calls to make their toys more environmentally friendly. In 2018 the company announced that a new type of plastic made from sugar cane would be used for greenery (trees, shrubs and leaves), and announced a plan to be completely zero waste in production and have all core products made from sustainable materials by 2030.

Current strategies to reduce waste include the introduction of paper pulp trays to replace plastic in its Lego advent calendars, and paper bags for bricks. The company aims to have zero waste packaging by 2025, following requests from consumers - including children.

"We are inspired by the millions of kids who have called for more urgent action on climate change," LEGO Group chief executive Niels B Christiansen told the BBC in 2020. "We have received many letters from children about the environment asking us to remove single-use plastic packaging."

To encourage people to donate Lego sets and pieces for reuse and stop them ending up in landfill LEGO launched LEGO Replay, a scheme that allows people to box up their unwanted Lego to children in need. Currently the service is only available in Canada and the USA but Lego have plans to expand it. At time of writing 136,078kg of Lego have been donated to the scheme.

What to do with old LEGO

If you have an attic full of vintage LEGO you could be sitting on a miniature goldmine (possibly literally). 73-year-old Hans Brummer spent 40 years collecting Lego, and his collection is estimated to be worth £20,000 when it goes to auction later this year (2021). Even if your collection is not as big as Brummer's there's a market on eBay and other selling sites, and it's sure to be snapped up by buyers at boot sales. 

Read our guide to selling on eBay

A LEGO timeline

1932 Master carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen started making wooden toys after making miniature versions of his product design ideas (ladders, iron boards etc)

1947 LEGO purchased a plastic injection moulding machine

1949 The first LEGO building blocks, known as 'Automatic Binding Bricks' were manufactured from cellulose acetate

1953 The Automatic Binding Bricks are renamed 'LEGO Bricks'

1955 Lego’s ‘System of Play’ is introduced (also known as ‘Play and learn’), emphasising the importance of children learning through play

1958 The LEGO brick is given a new patented coupling system using hollow tubes on the underside – thus ensuring that your models don’t fall apart. LEGO bricks stick together!

1960 A warehouse fire destroyed most of the company's wooden toys, and it was decided the company would focus on plastic

1962 LEGO introduces the wheel and even experiments with electric motors

1964 The first instruction manuals are included in the kits

1966 The LEGO train system is released, going on to become one of their most popular series

1968 Legoland Park opens in Billund, as Lego sales soared to around 18 million units

1969 Duplo system is launched featuring larger, chunky bricks suitable for younger children

1971 Dollhouses and furniture items are released to appeal to girls

1974 The LEGO figure is born in the 'Lego family' sets – role play and characters become an integral part of the whole experience of playing with LEGO

1978 The minifigure is launched - these updated figures have poseable arms and legs and a distinctive smile, and the LEGO Castle, LEGO Space and LEGO City ranges are introduced

1980 The Educational Projects Department (renamed LEGO Cacta in 1989) is launched to focus on the educational possibilities of LEGO

1982 The LEGO Technic line is introduced, an evolution of the Expert Builder range

1984 LEGO collaborates with the Media Lab at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) on programmable bricks…

1986 … the result is LEGO Technic Computer Control – the forerunner of LEGO robots

1988 The first LEGO World Cup was held in Billund and featured 38 children from 17 countries around the world

1989 Seymour Papert from MIT becomes LEGO Professor of Learning Research, and that same year LEGO Pirates are launched

1990 A new range aimed at advanced builders is released. Called Three Model Team, the range included a highly detailed race car and off-road vehicle

1993 A deal between LEGO and Kabooki A/S – Lego Kids’ Wear goes on sale

1994 LEGO Belville is released, a largely pink and purple range aimed at girls. It would go on to be replaced by LEGO Friends

1995 LEGO Primo launched for those aged under two

1996 Legoland Park opens in the UK, in Windsor

1997 LEGO's first video game Lego Island is released by Mindscape

1998 LEGO Group wins right to make Star Wars products

1999 LEGO produces its first branded Lego - LEGO Star Wars and Winnie the Pooh Duplo

2001 The ‘Bionicle’ arrives: combining real toys with online games, and LEGO Harry Potter is launched

2003 Bionicle: Mask of Light, a feature film based on the Bionicle series, is launched straight-to-DVD as the first official LEGO film

2004 The company faces bankruptcy with a loss of £174 million, with vice-president of marketing Mads Nipper putting the loss down to lack of innovation and not adapting to changing play trends

2005 The Legoland Parks are sold to theme park giant Merlin for £250 million and Lego refocuses on its core business

2009 LEGO board games launched – for all the family to play together

2010 The LEGO Universe game goes online. It means players can have fun playing with virtual bricks – while also playing with real, physical bricks at home

2011 LEGO Ninjago is launched and goes on to become one of the brand's most popular ranges

2012 Lego celebrated its 80th birthday, and a new pastel range, LEGO Friends, replaced the now defunct Belville

2014 The LEGO Movie, a feature film based on the toys, is released by Warner Brothers to critical acclaim

2017 The LEGO Batman Movie and The LEGO Ninjago Movie are released

2018 The first sustainable LEGO pieces (made from sugarcane) go into production. The pieces are the botanical elements of sets - trees, bushes and leaves

2019 LEGO purchases Bricklink, the world's largest Lego fan community

2020 LEGO launches several products with a purely adult audience in mind, including a LEGO White Noise, an app filled with mindful LEGO sounds, and an 18+ range in a sophisticated black box that includes detailed buildings and Star Wars armour, and would go on to expand into beautifully detailed bouquets of flowers and bonsai trees

LEGO trivia

  • The plural of LEGO is LEGO, not LEGOs
  • LEGO is short for 'leg' and 'godt', 'play well' in Danish
  • 20 billion LEGO pieces are manufactured every year 
  • Every second 7 LEGO sets are sold around the world
  • LEGO is the world's largest tyre manufacturers, producing about 700 million tyres a year
  • For every person on the planet there are 62 LEGO bricks
  • 4.8 million pieces of LEGO were lost at sea in 1997 and pieces are still being washed up now
  • Six eight-stud LEGO bricks can be combined in 915 million different ways
  • It is estimated that LEGO uses 90,000 tonnes of plastic 
  • The LEGO Colosseum is the biggest ever LEGO set, with 9,036 pieces and an RRP of £449.99, beating the Millennium Falcon's 7,541 pieces

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