The amazing story of LEGO: from wood ducks to robotics

The first set of LEGO appeared at the author of this material, it is scary to say in 1989 - brought to the USSR from a mysterious foreign country in a plastic bag. Therefore, the author has been in love with LEGO for almost thirty years and is undoubtedly biased. Moreover, he wants to understand the origins of the subject of his passion.

And it all started before the war in the small Danish town of Billund, where today the LEGO head office is located. In 1916, the 25-year-old carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen decided to start his own business and bought a small workshop where he made decorations for facades and furniture. His business went quite successfully for many years, survived a serious fire in 1924, but did not survive the Great Depression. By the beginning of the thirties there were no customers, and the Christiansen family was sitting on beans. It became clear that you won’t live with furniture production - and you need to switch to more modest projects.

The legendary duck kept in the assortment of the company for about 20 years. The picture shows a sample of the mid-1950s.

So in 1932 a workshop was founded, which over time became one of the most famous toy manufacturers in the world.

Wood and plastic

So, Christiansen's workshop began to make toys - wooden pigs, ducks, cars, houses. Inexpensive and simple, they sold well, all the more expenses were more than modest: at first, only three of his eldest sons worked with Ole Kirk - Johannes, Karl Georg and Gottfried Ole, later the workshop grew to 7 employees. Also, simple equipment was made in the workshop - garden stairs, ironing boards.

Lego Group 1932 LEGO products at the company's museum. In the background is a LEGO advertising shot: the entire workshop staff and products.

In 1934, the workshop received its modern name. Kristiansen hesitated between several options, in particular, he wanted to call the company LEGIO (from the legion of toys - "legion of toys"), but in the end he called LEGO from the Danish leg godt, "play well." Funny, but quite often another translation is found - from Latin the word lego can be translated as "I am putting it together." Representatives of the company found this similarity much later and immediately took advantage of the amazing coincidence.

Company logos of different years. The very first (1934) is at the top left. Modern (since 1998) - down in the middle.

The motto of the company was the phrase "Only the best is good enough." And indeed - LEGO wooden ducks were of the highest quality. In 1935, the first prefabricated wooden toys appeared in the assortment.

Lego Group The motto of the company “Only the best is good enough”, hanging above the door of the workshop in the 1930s. Gottfried personally cut it.

Gottfried did not intend to continue his father's carpentry and planned to study in Germany, but the war prevented these plans. The son remained in the workshop - and the toy business became his life, it was he, the third of five children, who continued the work of his father. During the war, the workshop did not stop working, although in 1942 it burned to the ground during an air raid and was rebuilt by workers.

LEGO wooden truck, 1935.

Neither the occupation nor the post-war crisis prevented LEGO from developing. Toys were needed at all times, the company grew, and in 1946, Ole Kirk made a landmark decision. He bought an injection molding machine for plastic, in other words, an injection molding machine capable of injection molding plastic parts. It cost 30 thousand Danish kroner - with the company's annual turnover of only 450 thousand. But as it turned out, it was the most correct step of all possible.

Wooden toy workshop of the late 1940s.

From ducks to designers

In the 1940-1950s, the LEGO assortment was huge, but on the whole did not differ from the assortment of other toy companies that had wooden and plastic production. Plastic balls for children, a board game according to the rules of the road, wooden animal figures, all kinds of games for the backyard, models of cars - everything in the world!

Lego Group The very first LEGO injection molding machine.

Moreover, the best-selling toy of the late forties was ... a gun, first a wooden one, then a plastic one. Still, children love to play war games, and if the toy company wanted to be competitive, they had to make militaristic toys. But we will give credit - this was the first and last such toy of the brand, Kristiansen was a pacifist to the marrow of bones and categorically did not want to make toy weapons. By 1949, the company had 50 employees.

Pages from the 1950 LEGO catalog. These catalogs became the forerunners of the famous contemporary yearbooks.

And then an interesting thing happened. The idea of ​​building various structures made of bricks, capable of being clamped in each other, was not new. In the early 1930s, such toys were made, for example, by the British company Minibrix, although the protrusions of its cubes were not located on top, but on the bottom of the bricks. LEGO had similar ideas, but they were not able to fully implement them in the tree.

And in 1939, Briton Hilary Fisher Page, the founder of Kiddicraft, patented what he called "self-clamping building blocks" - his invention resembled modern LEGO 4x4 bricks. Later, he received several more patents for cubes of various sizes and types. Kiddicraft was one of the first plastic toy manufacturers in Europe, and its products were supplied as samples along with injection molding machines. Such a sample was also attached to the car purchased by Kristiansen (it was generally the first injection molding machine in Denmark).

Advertising prototype LEGO, toys company Kiddikraft. The cubes invented by Hilary Page did not yet have an internal structure, they “self-clamped on the edges, and therefore large models could not be turned over. Much later, in 1981, LEGO bought a patent for such a cube from Page's successors.

If for Page the cubes were one of many of his toys, then the Dane felt real potential in them. He slightly improved the cube, changing the shape of the slot in the bottom for better fastening, and in 1949 introduced his own version called “automatic fastening blocks” (along with other plastic toys, for example, a bear in an airplane).

The first LEGO bricks, 1949.

The first LEGO bricks were of several types: bricks 2x2, 2x4, windows with a base 2x2, 2x3 and 2x4, as well as doors with a base 2x4. Their combinations made it possible to build almost any home. The first four sets of bricks were called 700/1, 700/2, 700/3 and 700/4 (even then the company laid the foundation for its famous numbering of sets). The 700 / x series was produced until the mid-1960s.

Set 700/3, 1950.

And in 1958, Gottfried Kirk Christiansen received his most famous patent, probably, for a system for clamping a speaker in a brick. Turn over any LEGO die and you will see this system. Page's basic bricks did not have such a system, and therefore large structures from Kiddicraft could not, for example, be turned over.

The coolest thing in this system to this day is that all the cubes produced from 1958 to the present day are compatible! Yes, you can take parts from a 1960s kit and safely use them in a modern kit. Moreover, although the details of the younger LEGO DUPLO series are 8 times larger than their older brothers, they are also compatible with them! This versatility has made LEGO what the company is now. And we will go further.

From bricks to modern sets

Neither Page nor Kirk Ole Christiansen saw the triumphal procession of their bricks on the planet - both died in 1957 and 1958, respectively. Gottfried Kirk took over the leadership of LEGO. By then, the cubes had already taken a modern look - even with the printed word LEGO on each tooth.

From the catalog of 1953.

In 1956, exports began - the first country for deliveries was Sweden, the second - Germany, then Switzerland, France, and Great Britain were added. Of course, not only and not so much designers were exported. The main export so far has been ordinary plastic toys. And in 1960, either misfortune or a sign occurred. The workshop in which they worked with wood burned down. Thinking, Gottfried Kirk decided not to resume wood production and focus on the future. And the future was clearly in the plastic.

Packaging Production, 1962

By the early 1960s, the company was already large, even very large. Goods were delivered, including to the United States, Gottfried acquired a private jet, and more and more new items appeared in the toy line that are so familiar to us today. For example, a wheel mount for LEGO cars was patented in 1961, in 1964 sets were divided into basic (say, houses and cars) and additional (just bricks that could be used to complete basic sets) - this structure is still preserved .

An interesting fact: there was no airport in Billund, and LEGO built it at its own expense, because it had a cargo plane for direct deliveries of toys, and needed to take off directly from the factory gates. By 1966, the company was producing kits to assemble 57 buildings and 25 vehicles, and a total of 706 million parts were produced annually.

In 1967, gears and small electric motors that were integrated into sets were introduced - in fact, this was the first step to LEGO Technic. In 1968, the famous Legoland opened in Billund - in the first year it was visited by 625, 000 people! And in 1969, the LEGO DUPLO series went on sale - on an enlarged scale for the smallest. The name of this series comes from the Latin duplus, “doubled”, because its cubes are twice as large for each of the parameters - height, length and width.

Steps to the future

In the LEGO world there were trains and cars, houses and roads, airports and train stations - only one was missing. Of man. Of course, the sets offered to assemble humanoid figures from the available parts, but that was not quite right. In 1975, the first prototypes of modern minifigures appeared in sets - they did not have moving arms, their legs did not move either, and they were a single whole, faces were not painted on their heads. But the figures had some choice of hats.

An early version of minifigures (1975), still without hands and faces.

The new word was not said at all by Gottfried, but by his son, a representative of the third generation of the family, Kjeld Kirk Christiansen. In 1978, he developed a moving human figure integrating into existing LEGO cities - and proposed it on the board of directors. It was already a modern character with a smiley and hands-clamps. The idea was enthusiastically accepted, and the LEGO world became inhabited. From that moment on, all sets of the LEGO City, LEGO Castle and LEGO Space series were necessarily equipped with men. Over the years, more than four billion figures have been released.

Classic minifigures designed by Kjeld. They had the same smiley faces, but in general they corresponded to modern ones.

It is worth noting that until 1989, the faces of all Lego men were the same, just smiles from the eyes and smiles. The first different faces (in particular, unshaven) appeared in the LEGO Pirates line. By the way, the pirates also appeared other removable elements of the bodies, in particular - hooks instead of arms and wooden legs.

Meanwhile, the "adult" LEGO line with motors, gears, driveshafts and drives was also developing. In 1982, it received its modern name - LEGO Technic. Subsequently, electrical components, in particular sirens and lanterns, received sets of younger series. And in 1999, the company entered into the first ever contracts with third-party companies for the production of licensed figures and series. In LEGO DUPLO, this series was the adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and in LEGO Space, the Star Wars series.

Lego today

Of course, we did not talk about all the steps in the history of LEGO. Everything was ever the first time, and any of the elements that are used in modern designers, someone invented, someone improved, someone modified. Today in the LEGO Universe there are dozens of worlds, hundreds of sets, thousands of characters. A successful series of films (essentially, puppet animation) added to the toys, in particular, the recent “Lego Movie: Batman”, kind and witty at the same time, was great at the box office.

Seven sets of LEGOs are sold every second in the world, Danish sets have even traveled to space - in 2011, astronauts captured 13 sets on the ISS. The story goes on, more and more new series, sets, characters appear.

In subsequent articles, we will tell a lot more interesting about LEGO, including the rarest models in history and amazing full-size mock-ups from cubes. Do not switch the channel, read Popular Mechanics and play LEGO!


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