The History of LEGO
The story of how a small carpentry shop that made wooden toys turned into one of the top toy makers in the world.
When I was a little kid in the 1970s, you didn’t go online to buy the latest LEGO Star Wars or NINJAGO set. You went to the toy store. When my parents finally let me buy more legos, the question wasn’t one of which series to buy but rather how big a box of bricks I would be allowed to get. Yes, there were some Lego “sets” back in the seventies. But really it was all about the bricks.
Playing with legos has changed a lot since then,and so have legos themselves. Back then my friends and I each had a tub of legos. We would build something of our own design, play with it and admire it for a few days, and then tear it apart and build something new. More bricks meant you could build more things. Sets were very simple and didn’t require many directions. My friends and I didn’t even know what a Death Star or a Millennium Falcon was — heck, Star Wars was just premiering in the theaters in 1976 - let alone think that one day we would be able to build these amazing intergalactic spaceships out of legos!
Our story begins in Denmark around the turn of the twentieth century. Ole Kirk Christiansen was born in 1891 in Filskov, South Jutland, Denmark, the tenth child of a poor family. Despite these circumstances, Ole received a basic high school education, apprenticed under his brother, and worked in carpentry for a few years in Germany. Returning to Denmark, Ole purchased a the Billund Woodworking and Carpentry Shop in 1916. The shop mainly made custom furniture and helped to construct houses. Ole married, had four sons, and made a decent living.
The LEGO story is punctuated by several pivotal fires. The first of these fires occurred in 1924 when wood shavings, that his sons were tinkering with, ignited. Both Ole’s workshop and his home burned. While some would have been devastated by such a fire, Ole turned this misfortune on its head and built a larger workshop.
When the Depression hit in the early 1930s, Ole’s woodworking shop was greatly impacted. Demand for home construction and custom furniture stalled. He eventually had to let go of all of his workers, and in 1932 his wife died leaving him alone with his four boys. Ole focused on more practical furniture items, making stepladders, ironing boards, and stools for milking cows, but sales struggled there as well. He also began to producing a variety of finely-crafted wooden toys from high quality birch wood, initially trading toys for food. But Ole persisted, finding that there continued to be market for fine wooden toys despite the tough economy. Ole’s 12 year-old son Godtfred started to help his father in his shop.
Ole’s reputation for great craftsmanship spread and he focused his efforts on toy making. Business improved and Ole was again able to hire workers. In 1934 Ole held a contest for his staff to come up with a name for his growing company, with the prize being a bottle of his own homemade wine. Ole was thinking of names himself and ended up selecting his own entry, “Lego”, shortening the Danish phrase leg godt which means “play well”. Later it came to be realized that the Latin translation means “I put together”.
Meanwhile, over in England, British toy maker Hilary Fisher Page, who had founded Kiddicraft toys, had been growing dissatisfied with wooden toys. In 1936 he began crafting plastic toys with new injection molding technology. In 1937 Fisher began selling these plastic toys under the brand Bri-Plax, receiving a British patent for an Interlocking Building Cube in 1940. Fisher continued to innovate, producing a smaller brick design, patenting it in 1947 and marketing Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Bricks.
Back in Denmark, Ole’s factory experienced its second fire in 1942. Ole rebuilt with growth in mind. Post WWII, plastics were coming on the scene, and in 1946 Ole purchased one of the new plastic injection molding machines, an expensive investment for the times. Inspired by the the Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Bricks, Ole created his own version his own version. By 1949 Lego was manufacturing over 200 different plastic and wooden toys, including its own interlocking brick — the Automatic Binding Brick. In recognition of the Allied Forces who helped liberate Europe and bring an end to WWI, the toy was given an American name. (The LEGO Group eventually bought the residual rights to the Kiddicraft brick design in an out-of-court settlement in 1981.)
By 1951 plastic toys accounted for half of LEGO’s production. In 1953 the Automatic Binding Brick was renamed the “LEGO brick”. The name LEGO was printed inside every brick. LEGO applied to register their trademark and gained approval in 1954.
Over the years, Ole’s son Godtfred was taking on increased leadership within The LEGO Group. During the War, Godtfred had given up on his plans to study in Germany and stayed in Denmark to become a manager at Lego. In 1950 he was appointed Junior Vice President. On a trip to England in 1954, Godtfred spoke with a purchasing agent on the ferry. The agent expressed to Godtfred that he thought the toys lacked idea and system. From this conversation, Godtfred came up with the idea for the “LEGO System of Play” which was launched in 1955. This concept meant that all blocks should interlock and be interrelated.
Up until this time, there was no real export of LEGO products. That changed in 1955 as exports began to Sweden. The following year the first foreign sales office was established in Germany. In 1957 Godtfred became Managing Director and the LEGO Group celebrated its 25th anniversary.
The LEGO brick that we know today, with its stud-and-tube coupling system, was patented in 1958. Today’s LEGO bricks will connect with these bricks. It was also in 1958, that Ole Kirk Christiansen, the founder of LEGO, passed away at the age of 66 following a heart attack. By now the Billund factory had grown to 140 employees.
A third fire in 1960 consumed the wooden toy warehouse. Having lost all of its wooden inventory, LEGO decided to discontinue wooden toy manufacturing and focus on plastics. Having spread to several European countries during the late 1950s, LEGO made its debut in America and Canada in 1961, via a licensing agreement with Samsonite Corp.
The LEGO Group continued to innovate. Model sets, with instructions, were introduced in 1964. Sales continued to expand to other countries and continents. By 1966 legos were sold in 42 countries, with between 18 to 19 million sets sold worldwide in 1967.
Seeing the potential to attract visitors and promote the LEGO brand, LEGOLAND Billund opened on June 7, 1968. The first day that it opened, 3,000 people showed up. Godtfred had hoped to host 300,000 guests that first year, but by the end of its first season, LEGOLAND had been enjoyed by 625,000 visitors.
In 1969 LEGO launched the Duplo brand. These were larger blocks aimed at children under age 5. By 1970 the Billund factory had grown to 843 employees. During the seventies, LEGO continued to expand into other countries and to introduce new products. LEGOLAND minifigures were introduced in 1978.
The next generation took over control of the LEGO Group in the eighties as Godtfred resigned as chairman of the board and his son, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, took over. By 1990 LEGO was one of the ten largest toy manufacturers in the world. That year also saw LEGOLAND Billund hit the magic mark of one million visitors a year.
But problems were beginning to emerge. Profits started to decline in 1992. This was in part attributable to large changes in the design staff at LEGO but there were also changes in the market. LEGO continued to invest heavily yet children were getting less time to play, some western markets had fewer children, and play trends were changing. In 1998 LEGO faced its first deficit.
Still facing a large deficit in 2004, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen resigned as CEO and appointed Jorgen Vig Knudstrop as the new CEO. Knudstrop had joined LEGO in 2001, following turns as a consultant and as a university researcher. In 2005 the LEGO group sold its four LEGOLAND parks to Merlin Entertainments, returning the company to a profit that year. (The LEGO Group’s parent company, KIRKBI, also acquired a stake in Merlin Entertainments at the time of sale and retains an equity interest today.) By 2006, LEGO had 4,922 employees and www.LEGO.com had a daily average of more than 8 million unique visitors per month. Partnerships would lead to the successful launch of Indiana Jones and Star Wars LEGO sets.
In 2014 The Lego Movie was released by Warner Brothers and the LEGO Group and proved to be highly popular. Other movies followed. The year 2018 saw the 60th anniversary of the LEGO brick and the 50th anniversary of LEGOLAND Billund.
Today The LEGO Group is one of the largest toy manufacturers in the world, with over 18,000 employees in 2019. It is still privately held and Thomas Kirk Kristiansen, the son of Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, is the Chairman. The LEGO foundation, established in 1986, promotes learning through play. There are estimated to be 400 billion LEGO bricks in the world. The amount of LEGO bricks sold each year could wrap around the earth five times.
LEGO has come a long, long way from its beginnings in a small carpentry shop in Denmark. A truly global toy, LEGO has inspired children for over eight decades to dream, build, and create. With all of the troubles and conflicts in our society today, it is wonderful to know that there exists a world where the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.