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Home » Toys

Toys

LEGO is a Danish toy company best known for its line of interconnecting plastic bricks. The company adopted the name LEGO in 1934, a portmanteau formed from the Danish phrase "leg godt", meaning "play well". Until 1949, the LEGO company primarily produced wooden toys, though modern LEGO toys are made from plastic.

LEGO's product was not always the superior system of high-quality plastic building bricks that it is today. It had self-effacing beginnings in the workshop of Ole Kirk Christiansen, a poor carpenter from Billund, Denmark. His innovative family-owned business would one day grow into one of the most well respected toy companies in the world.

Beginnings:

In 1916, Christiansen opened a woodworking shop in Billund, and earned his living by constructing houses and furniture for farmers in the region, with the help of a small staff of apprentices. His workshop burned down in 1924 when a fire, lit by his two young sons, ignited some wood shavings. Fearless, Ole Kirk took the calamity as an opportunity to construct a larger workshop, and worked towards getting bigger his business even further; however, the Great Depression would soon have an impact on his livelihood. In finding ways to minimize production costs, Ole Kirk began producing miniature versions of his products as design aids. It was these miniature stepladders and ironing boards that inspired him to begin producing toys.

Ole Kirk's shop started making wooden pull toys, piggy banks, cars and trucks. He enjoyed a modest amount of success, but families were poor and often unable to manage to pay for such toys. Farmers in the area sometimes traded food in exchange for his toys; Ole Kirk found he had to continue producing practical furniture in addition to toys in order to stay in business. In the mid-1930s, the yo-yo toy fad gave him a brief period of activity, until its sudden fall down. Once again, Ole Kirk turned disadvantage to his favor, turning the disused yo-yo parts into wheels for a toy truck. His son Godtfred began working for him, and taking an active role in the company.

It was in 1934 that the company name LEGO was coined by Christiansen from the Danish phrase leg godt, meaning "play well." Some claim that "LEGO" means "I put together" or "I assemble" in Latin, although this is a rather liberal translation of a verb form that would normally translate as "I read" or "I gather".

When plastic came into extensive use, Ole Kirk kept with the times and began producing plastic toys. One of the first modular toys to be produced was a truck that could be taken apart and re-assembled. It wasn't until 1949 that the interlocking plastic bricks, which made the company well-known, were developed. These "Automatic Binding Bricks", manufactured from cellulose acetate, were developed in the spirit of traditional wooden blocks that could be stacked upon one another; the ground-breaking concept, however, was that these plastic bricks could be "locked" together. They had several round "studs" on top, and a hollow rectangular bottom. They would stick together, but not so tightly that they couldn't be pulled apart. In 1953, the bricks were given a new name: “LEGO Mursten” , or "LEGO Bricks."

The use of plastic for toy manufacture was not highly regarded by retailers and consumers of the time. Many of LEGO's shipments were returned, following poor sales; it was thought that plastic toys could never substitute wooden ones. Despite such criticism, however, the Kirk Christiansens persevered. By 1954, Godtfred had become the junior managing director of LEGO. It was his conversation with an overseas buyer that struck the idea of a toy system. Godtfred saw the massive potential in LEGO bricks to become a system for creative play, but the bricks still had some problems from a technical standpoint: their "locking" ability was limited, and they were not very adaptable. It wasn't until 1958 that the modern-day brick design was developed. The bricks were improved with hollow tubes in the underside of the brick. This added support in the base, enabling much better locking ability and improved flexibility. That same year, Ole Kirk Christiansen died, and Godtfred inherited leadership of the company.

Growth:

LEGO developed substantially over the coming years. In 1959, the Futura division was founded within the company. Its small staff was responsible for generating ideas for new sets. Another warehouse fire struck the LEGO company in 1960, consuming most of the company's inventory of wooden toys; fortunately, the LEGO brick line was strong enough by then that the company decided to discard production of wooden toys. By the end of the year, the staff of the LEGO company had grown to 450. 1961 and 1962 saw the introduction of the first LEGO wheels, an addition that expanded the potential for building cars, trucks, busses and other vehicles from LEGO bricks. There were more than 50 sets of bricks in the LEGO System of Play by this time. Another noteworthy expansion to the Lego line occurred in 1979, with the establishment of Lego Space sets. Astronaut minifigures, rockets, lunar rovers and spaceships colonized this successful series. Fabuland, a dream series targeted towards younger children, debuted in this year as well, as did the Scala series, featuring jewelry elements marketed towards young girls. Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen became the president of Lego in this year; another decade concluded with Lego toys still going strong. . Also during this time, LEGO introduced toys specifically targeted towards the pre-school market, and made an understanding allowing Samsonite to begin producing and selling LEGO products in Canada, an arrangement that would continue until 1988.

In 1963, cellulose acetate, the plastic material used to create LEGO bricks, was dropped in favor of a more stable material. Cellulose acetate was known to have problems with discoloration and warping; its successor was acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS plastic, which is still used as of 2004. ABS had a number of additional advantages over cellulose acetate: it is more resistant to heat, acids, salt, and other chemicals, and is non-toxic. LEGO bricks manufactured from ABS plastic in 1963 still hold most of their shape and color 40 years later, and still neatly interlock with LEGO bricks manufactured in 2003. 1964 was the first time that instruction manuals were included in LEGO sets.

One of LEGO's most successful series, the LEGO train system, was first released in 1966. The original train sets included a 4.5-volt motor and rails; two years later, a 12-volt motor was introduced. On June 7, 1968, the LEGOLAND Park in Billund was opened. This theme park featured elaborate models of miniature towns, built entirely from LEGO bricks. The three-acre park fascinated 625,000 visitors in its first year alone. During the next 20 years, the park grew to more than eight times its original size, and eventually averaged close to a million paying visitors per year. More than eighteen million LEGO sets were sold in 1968.

Expansion:

LEGO bricks had always had a beneficial potential that was seen by some educators as being an invaluable asset in helping children to build up creativity and problem-solving abilities. Since the 1960s, teachers had been using LEGO bricks in the classroom for a variety of reasons. In 1980, LEGO established the Educational Products Department (eventually renamed LEGO DACTA, in 1989), specifically to expand the educational possibilities of their toys. A packing and assembly factory opened in Switzerland, followed by another in Jutland, Denmark that manufactured LEGO tires.The second generation LEGO Trains appeared in 1981. As before these were available in either 4.5V (battery powered) or 12V (mains powered), but a much wider variety of accessories were available, including working lights, remote-controlled points and signals, and even decouplers.

The "Expert Builder" series matured in 1982, becoming the "Technic" series. August 13 of that year marked the LEGO company's 50th anniversary; the book 50 Years of Play was published to remember the occasion. In the following year, the DUPLO system was expanded to include sets for even younger audiences, particularly infants; new sets included baby rattles and figures with adjustable limbs. In another year, LEGO minifig citizens gained a realm of knights and horses, with the introduction of the first Castle sets.

Light & Sound sets made their appearance in 1986; these sets included a battery pack with electrical lights, buzzers, and other accessories to add another dimension of realism to LEGO creations. Also that year, LEGO's educational division produced the Technic Computer Control, which was an educational system whereby Technic robots, trucks, and other motorized models could be controlled with a computer. Manaus, Brazil gained a LEGO factory in this year, as well.

 

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