LEGOs are, quite simply, one of the most successful toys of all time. The uncomplicated multicolored plastic blocks interlock and can be rearranged in endless combinations. The durable LEGOs have provided endless hours of creative play for millions of children around the world.
LEGO began in 1932 with carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen (1891–1958) in Billund, Denmark. Christiansen's business manufactured simple wooden products, including toy blocks he made with leftover wood. In 1934, he adopted the name "LEGO" from the Danish words Leg Godt which means "play well." The phrase also means "I study" or "I put together" in Latin. This business did well enough for a while, but it really took off in the late 1940s when the company bought a plastic injection-molding machine to make plastic bricks. By 1949, the company was producing two hundred different plastic and wooden toys. In 1955, the company began selling LEGO bricks in organized sets, which they called the "LEGO System of Play." There were twenty-eight sets offered that year.
In 1958, the company introduced the modern version of the LEGO brick that most children are familiar with: raised studs on the tops of the bricks, with tubes underneath to lock onto studs from other bricks. Now there were 102,981,500 different ways of combining six eight-stud bricks of the same color. This allowed for virtually endless variety, and it became very difficult for creative children to exhaust the possibilities. The company offered model sets beginning in 1964. These contained the proper bricks to make complete models of cars, villages, boats, and so on. By 1966, more than 57 sets were offered and more than 706 million blocks were manufactured. In 1967, larger bricks, called DUPLO, were introduced for younger children. The company would later offer more advanced sets, called Technik, for older children, and specialty lines featuring space adventures, pirates, knights and castles, and other themes. In 1968, the company opened its first LEGOLAND park in Billund, Denmark, a theme park showcasing all that could be done with LEGOs. Other parks, in England and in the United States, opened later in the century. The company also held periodic World Cup building championships to see who could build the biggest and best LEGO creations.
LEGO bricks had been an enduring part of the lives of American children for several generations by the end of the twentieth century. Their simplicity offered almost unlimited options for creative play. Unlike other toys that carefully defined what children could do with them, LEGOs encouraged kids to use their imaginations to build ever more elaborate and fanciful constructions. Kids could build houses full of many rooms, castles with towers, and entire towns out of the bricks. When LEGO introduced plastic people and wheels to their basic sets, kids could invent entire worlds populated with people driving fancy cars, flying airplanes, and living in gigantic houses. LEGOs were seen as being good for kids because they required thinking. LEGOs encouraged them to use their minds rather than simply sit in front of the television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) set or play video games (see entry under 1970s—Sports and Games in volume 4).
Eventually, LEGO moved beyond the basic building-block sets toward sets that could be built in more limited, specialized ways. With the basic blocks, just about anything could be built. With the more specialized ones, it became harder to break away and build anything other than the models in the set. Eventually, the company introduced computer chips into certain models, such as the LEGO "Mindstorm" sets. Some sets even came with CD-ROMs with instructions on how to build the models. This was a long way from the basic theme of the early LEGO blocks: simple bricks that required children to be creative in their play. These changes were more than successful, however. By the mid-1990s, LEGO was one of the largest toy manufacturers in the world. By this time, LEGO had become one of the world's most recognized brand names, splashed on building blocks, CD-ROM games, and a magazine. Fortune magazine and the British Association of Toy Retailers named LEGO the "toy of the century." With the introduction of buildable action figures known as Bionicles in 2001, LEGO made its bid to be the toy of the next century as well.
For More Information
Lane, Anthony. "The Joy of Bricks: What Have the Danes Done for Children?" The New Yorker (Vol. 74, no. 10, April 27/May 4, 1998): pp. 96–103.
The Official LEGO Web Site.http://www.lego.com/ (accessed February 26, 2002).
Wiencek, Henry. The World of LEGO Toys. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.