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Christiansen, Ole Kirk

Ole Kirk Christiansen

Danish toymaker Ole Kirk Christiansen (1891-1958) founded The LEGO Group, one of the world's largest toy manufacturers. A carpenter by training who began making wooden toys during the Great Depression, Christiansen devised the multicolored plastic blocks that could be fashioned into numerous combinations of colors and shapes and which went on to become one of the world's best-selling toys. Christiansen died in 1958, and his son inherited the company and turned it into a global powerhouse whose “brightly colored interlocking bricks have virtually revolutionized the worldwide toy market,” wrote Robert D. Hershey in the New York Times in 1977.

Christiansen was born on April 7, 1891, in Vejle, a town in the Jutland peninsula of Denmark. He began tending his family's sheep in the fields at the age of six, and to pass the time during the long hours outside, he carved small wooden figures. Later, he trained under his older brother, Kristian Bonde Christiansen, to become a carpenter. Around 1916, he bought the Billund Woodworking and Carpentry Shop, and had several profitable years as a local home builder in the village of Billund, also in Jutland; during the slower winter months he made custom furniture. Along the way, he married and became the father to four sons.

Switched to Toymaking

The Great Depression did not impact Denmark's largely agricultural economy immediately when it began in 1929, but by 1931 a flattened market brought a subsequent slowdown in Christiansen's home-building and furnituremaking business. He was also a widower by that point, and to make ends meet he began crafting more practical items in his woodshop. These included stepladders, stools for milking cows, and ironing boards, along with a few wooden toys that were made primarily from wood scraps. The yo-yos, cars, and animals he carved out of wood proved such a hit that he came up with a brand name around 1934 for them. Taking the Danish phrase leg godt, or “play well” he called the line LEGO.

After World War II, Christiansen became intrigued by the possibilities offered by a relatively new material, plastic. In 1947, he acquired one of the first plastic injectionmolding machines in Denmark to make a new series of toys, such as a rattle shaped like a fish. His sons, now grown and working with him, cautioned that the new space-age material was too expensive and the possibilities too limited, but they were proven wrong over the next few years. In 1949, Christiansen introduced the first LEGO Automatic Binding Bricks, which in 1953 was shortened to just LEGO Bricks. When he visited a toy fair in England in 1954, one toy buyer for a retail chain told him there was no “system” in the world of toys, and this gave Christiansen the idea to create a series of LEGO items that could be purchased separately, but used with one another.

Won Patent for Brick Design

In 1955, the LEGO System of Play was introduced, which featured little cars and miniature people that children could use to create a town. The first “Town Plan No. 1” package also came with a large plastic sheet that provided a basic urban layout with roads and sidewalks. Altogether, the line grew to include 28 separate sets, which were a hit with children in Denmark and neighboring Scandinavian countries. The company still produced the LEGO bricks, but there were complaints that the bricks did not stay together. In 1958, Christiansen's son Godtred Kirk Christiansen devised a radical innovation in the design for each brick: there were already eight studs on the top, to which three tubes were added to the bottom. This made them click together neatly, and the company even applied for and was granted a patent for this, which was called a stud-and-tube coupling.

Unfortunately, Christiansen did not survive to witness the phenomenal growth of his company. He died on March 11, 1958, in Ribe, Denmark's oldest town. A year later, the company ended production of all wooden toys, and began moving into the larger European toy market over the next few years. In 1967, it introduced a Duplo line of plastic building blocks which were easier for younger children to put together. An agreement with Samsonite, the U.S. luggage manufacturer, to sell LEGO products in the United States proved to be an unwise strategy for conquering the vast American toy market, but Christiansen's sons had exited it by 1974 and moved to set up their own subsidiary in Enfield, Connecticut. This site began producing its own LEGO bricks in the early 1980s.

LEGO's World Domination

Adding a vast array of other LEGO products to the company's wares, Christiansen's heirs witnessed the cultlike status that their mainstay achieved among youngsters around the world, who avidly collected each of the sets of any new line. As Hershey wrote in the New York Times article, “Lego's bricks … are said by the company's psychologists to meet many of children's needs. One of their needs is to learn hand-eye coordination. Another is to make something of their own. (Lego says that, although the results may seem awkward to an adult, they satisfy a child, whose critical sense is not as well developed as his imagination.) And the bricks are designed to provide a harmless outlet for the basic urge to destroy as well as to create.”

LEGO bricks are manufactured on several continents, including South America and Asia, and the bricks themselves are built from specially made injection-molding machines, which are engineered “to achieve tolerances within two-thousandths of a millimeter, so precise that the bricks are said to lock a bit stiffly the first nine times but thereafter to grip perfectly for years,” wrote Hershey in the 1977 New York Times article. The LEGO Group headquarters are still located in Billund, Denmark, and Christiansen's grandson Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen (the spelling differs because of an error in the Danish vital records office), served as chief executive officer until 2004.

LEGO also opened fantastical theme parks, first in Billund in 1968 followed by sites in Windsor, England, Carlsbad, California, and Günzburg, Germany, where international landmarks are created entirely from LEGO bricks, among other attractions. The statistical record for the company is equally impressive: the Billund factory alone produces some 19 billion bricks per year, or 36,000 per minute. The core set of six LEGO bricks can be combined into 915,103,765 possible configurations. Since they first went into production in 1949, some 400 billion LEGO bricks have been manufactured and sold since 1949, which in 2006 meant that there was an average of 62 LEGO bricks for each person on earth. Only years later did the name that Ole Kirk Christiansen gave to his line of toys prove eerily prophetic in a universal language: in Latin, lego means “I put together” or “I assemble.”

Books

Company Profiles for Students, edited by Donna Craft and Amanda Quick, Volume 1, Gale, 1999.

Periodicals

Investor's Business Daily, April 24, 2000.

New York Times, December 25, 1977.

Saturday Evening Post, October 1984.

Times (London, England), November 13, 1981; May 14, 1985.

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