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A Chronological History of the LEGO Company and LEGO Toys
In 1932, in the village of Billund, Denmark, a master carpenter and joiner by the name of Ole Kirk Christiansen started a company to manufacture stepladders, ironing boards and wooden toys. Ole Kirk's son, Godtfred Kirk, joined him in the family business at the age of 12.
In 1934, the Christiansen's dub their business LEGO. It is a contraction of the Danish words "leg" and "godt". "Leg godt" means "play well" in Danish. Coincidentally, the word lego has the meanings "I study" and "I put together" in Latin.
At this time, the LEGO company only had about six or seven employees. It was also around this time that Ole Kirk's motto came into being as the guiding prinicple for his company: "Only the best is good enough." A funny note about this motto is that, apparently, the original Danish "Det bedste er ikke for godt," when translated literally into English, means "The best is not too good." But you get the point.
In 1942, a fire burned the LEGO factory to the ground. Refusing defeat, the Christiansens quickly resumed production of wooden toys. The company employed about 40 employees at the time. Five years later, they were the first company in Denmark to buy a plastic injection-moulding machine with which to make toys. Within a couple of years, the LEGO company was making 200 different plastic and wooden toys, and the forerunner to the current LEGO brick was born.
It was in 1949 that the first sets of Automatic Binding Bricks were sold, exclusively in Denmark, by the LEGO company. These bricks were very similar to the LEGO brick invented in 1958, except that they did not have tubes on the inside of the brick. If you're lucky, you can find some of these bricks in boxes or bags of toys that people sell at garage sales or thrift shops. If you do find some of these old bricks, you'll probably notice that the bricks don't look and feel as good as today's LEGO bricks. That's because LEGO used to use cellulose acetate to produce their bricks, which did not hold color as well and was not as stable as today's bricks.
In 1953, the name Automatic Binding Bricks was dropped in favor of the brand-promoting LEGO Bricks. The next year, on May first, the word LEGO was officially registered in Denmark. But it was the second half of the 1950s that held the most exciting and critical time for the LEGO company.
For the first time, in 1955, LEGO exported plastics products and toys to Sweden, including the "LEGO System of Play," which was comprised of 28 sets and 8 vehicles. LEGO's first sales company outside of Denmark was established in Hohenwestedt, Germany in 1956. The next year, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen was appointed President of the company.
Then, in 1958, the stud-and-tube configuration of the LEGO brick that we are today very familiar with was invented and patented (Danish patent number 92683). The tubes underneath were added to improve the stability of models built with LEGO Bricks. LEGO calls this added stability "clutch power." This was also the same year that the roof brick was introduced. Roof bricks added a whole new dimension to the building of structures, which could now be built with slanted rooftops instead of a stair-step configuration. Sadly, 1958 also saw the death of the company's founder. Ole Kirk Christiansen died and Godtfred Kirk was appointed head of the LEGO company.
The LEGO Futura division was established in 1959 with a five-person staff. It is this group that is responsible for coming up with all of the exciting, new LEGO sets that are released each year. Although LEGO is very secretive about their design and manufacturing, it seems that the current design cycle takes anywhere from a year and a half to three years, based on little clues found inside various sets. An example of this can be found on the holographic stickers included in the Exploriens sets. Although the sets were first introduced in 1996, some of the sticker sheets have a copyright date of 1994.
In the 1960s, the LEGO company continued to grow at an accelerated rate, but not without a little tragedy first. In 1960, the warehouse that held all of LEGO's wooden toys burned down (two inventory-destroying fires for one company in eighteen years!). Finally, the LEGO company decided not to continue production of wooden toys, and instead to concentrate on plastics. Four hundred and fifty people worked at LEGO in 1960.
The first LEGO wheels were invented and included in sets in 1961. The LEGO System of Play included 50 sets and 15 vehicles. Loose elements were also sold, as they had been since 1955. This was also the first year that LEGO sold products specifically geared towards the pre-school market. These lines were called Therapy I, II and III. Samsonite began to make and sell LEGO products in Canada under a special arrangement with LEGO. This deal would last until 1988!
The jet age hit the LEGO company in 1962, as LEGO took delivery of its first airplane and built a private airstrip in Billund to facilitate the travel and shipping necessary for a rapidly growing and increasingly international company. LEGO Airways was born!
Cellulose acetate was dropped in favor of ABS plastic in 1963. ABS, which stands for acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, is more stable and holds colors better than does cellulose acetate. This tough plastic is also used extensively to make items such as automobile parts and building materials. ABS is still used today in the production of LEGO toys. In addition to the properties noted above, ABS is non-toxic, rustproof, heat-resistant, resistant to most organic acids and diluted inorganic acids, resistant to salt and animal oils and fats. Hopefully, your LEGO bricks will never see most of these elements anyway! Oh, and ABS is also sterile.
The first LEGO sets that included building instructions were released in 1964. This was also the first year that LEGO instruced sets that had been previously consumer-tested...an innovation at that time. Molds for various LEGO elements were built in Germany for the first time in 1964 as well.
LEGO Train fans would have to go back to 1966 to acquire the first LEGO Train sets. These sets included a 4.5-volt motor, rails and more. By this time, the LEGO line included 57 sets and 25 vehicles. The next year, as more than 18 million LEGO sets were sold, the DUPLO brick was invented. The DUPLO brick is eight times the size of a standard LEGO brick, but is still compatible with the original bricks, continuing the importance and inherent notion of a system of toys that all work together.
On June 7th, 1968, LEGOLAND Park in Billund opened its gates to visitors. In that first year, 625,000 people visited the park. That same year, the LEGO company was awarded First Prize in a Best Toy competition in Luxemburg.
Two years after its invention, the DUPLO brick is released into the marketplace in 1969, along with a new, 12-volt motor for the LEGO Trains.
In 1970, small vehicles are introduced at a very low price to encourage the spending of pocket money on LEGO toys. These items included tow trucks, police cars and fire engines, etc. Brightly colored cogwheels were also introduced in various sizes. These items turn up every now and again in auctions on rec.toys.lego, or in garage sales. The cogwheels provided major inspiration towards the introduction of the Expert Builder (later Technic) line in 1977. There were 975 employees working for LEGO in 1970, not including those who worked at LEGOLAND Park.
The first of a long-line of products directed specifically towards girls was introduced in 1971. These products were doll houses with furniture elements. The next year, the first LEGO floating boat was introduced. 1972 also saw the introduction of the current LEGO logo.
The large-scale LEGO figures, sometimes referred to unofficially as "maxi-figs", were introduced in 1974. Set number 200 (LEGO Family) was released, and it was LEGO's biggest selling product to date. It included a mother, father, daughter, son and grandmother, and was popular with both boys and girls. This was also the first year that miniature, faceless figures were used in LEGO sets. These figures, which had heads similar to today's mini-figs but without printed faces, had solid torso and legs pieces (with no moving arms and legs). They were featured prominantly in a number of sets until 1978. There were now 1,325 employees at LEGO.
The first sets geared towards more advanced builders were launched in 1975. These Expert Series sets focused on models such as antique cars. This was also the year that packing began at the Enfield, Connecticut LEGO Systems, Inc. facility. Two years later, in 1977, the Expert Builder range (Technix in Europe) was launched. Expert Builder sets included many special elements such as gears, joints, beams and pegs which allowed for complex, realistic, working models to be built. The tag line for the Expert Builder range was "As Technical as the Real Thing."
Also debuting in 1977 were new DUPLO sets that featured door and window elements along with generic figures without arms or legs. Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen joined LEGO management in 1975 year as well. The spelling of his last name (using a "K" instead of a "Ch"), which has carried forth in the family to this day, was the result of an error on his birth certificate.
The LEGO scene was changed forever in 1978, with the introduction of the LEGOLAND mini figure. These tiny figures, with moveable arms and legs and printed faces, were introduced along with baseplates and road plates that allowed for entire towns to be built. The small scale of the mini-figs meant that a huge variety of sets could be built, all at the same scale, for a reasonable cost to the consumer. The mini-figs would enjoy a life of simple, smiling faces for ten years, until the introduction of the Pirates line, which featured more complex face designs.
Outer space was the target of LEGOLAND in 1979, as the first LEGOLAND Space sets were introduced. They very quickly became an enourmous success worldwide. Another series that debuted in 1979 was FABULAND. Geared towards younger builders, FABULAND sets featured an array of figures with animal heads and larger building elements. FABULAND was discontinued ten years later. A third new product for 1979 was the SCALA series. This was a series of jewelry sets that could be built from various pieces, marketed towards 5 to 7 year old girls, and was discontinued in 1981 due to a lack of consumer interest. Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen was appointed to President of INTERLEGO A/S.
The DUPLO rabbit logo was introduced in 1980, and LEGO established their Educational Products Department, which would later be renamed LEGO DACTA (in 1989). The following year saw the inauguration of the Neuhof factory in Switzerland, for the purpose of decorating, assembly, packing and storage.
The DUPLO Mosaic and Technic I series were introduced in 1982. These sets represented the first examples of products specially developed for the pre-school and schools markets. On August 13th, LEGO celebrated its 50th anniversary, for which they published the book "50 Years of Play." A factory was opened in Jutland, Denmark to manufacture all LEGO tires.
DUPLO Baby sets were released in 1983, including rattles and new DUPLO figures with adjustable arms and legs. The third LEGOLAND-scale series was introduced the following year, as the first Castle sets hit the market. These sets featured knights, horses built from standard LEGO elements and many other new pieces.
In April, 1985, The LEGO Prize was established. This was an annual award of 750,000 Danish Kroner (DKK) - about $114,000 per current exchange rates (6/22/97). The money was awarded for exceptional efforts on behalf of children. In 1989, the LEGO Prize was increased to one million DKK (about $152,000). LEGO Korea Co., Ltd. was established in Seoul, Korea. The various LEGO companies now employed about 5,000 people, with 3,000 of those in Denmark.
The first Light & Sound sets were introduced in 1986, adding an exciting new dimension to LEGO building. The Educational Products Department released the first Technic Computer Control, which allowed LEGO robots to be controlled using a computer. The TCC was launched in the U.K. and Denmark initially, but only for the schools market. It worked with different types of computers. LEGO Publishing, a division of LEGO Futura, developed and produced nine books and nineteen short films for children in 1986 as well. These products were sold only in Europe.
On April 16th, 1986, LEGO was granted the title "Purveyor to Her Majesty the Queen." This date was also the birthday of Denmark's Queen Margrethe.
In 1986, LEGO also opened a factory in Manaus, Brazil, to produce and pack bricks.
Buckets containing basic LEGO and DUPLO bricks first went on sale in 1987 in the U.S. and some European countries.
The first LEGO World Cup building contest was held in Billund in August of 1988. Thirty-eight children from 14 countries participated in the event. LEGO Canada was set up the same year, after termination of an agreement with Samsonite, who had been making and selling LEGO products in Canada since 1961.
In 1989, the Pirates series was launched with eleven sets. These were the first set to use the pirate ship hulls and raised baseplates, as well as being the first sets to use mini-fig faces other than the classic smiley face. The Educational Products Department was renamed LEGO DACTA, deriving its name from the Greek "didactic," meaning "the study of the purpose, means and substance of learning and the learning process." Dr. Seymour Papert of MIT's Development Laboratory of Computer Learning is named "LEGO Professor of Learning Research." Since 1984, Dr. Papert has been worked with LEGO's development staff on linking the LOGO computer programming language to LEGO products. Postage stamps and first-day covers issued in 1989 from the Isle of Man and Denmark feature LEGO bricks.
Model Team was launched in 1990, featuring three sets. The models featured are very detailed and realistic from a visual standpoint, as opposed to the technical, mechanical realism featured in the Technic sets. The first Technic Control Center was released this same year, as the LEGO Group becomes one of the world's ten largest toy companies. It is the only such company in Europe, with the other nine being based in either the U.S. or Japan.
Xavier Gilbert became the "LEGO Professor of Business Dynamics" at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland. Many of LEGO's international senior managers and specialists attend courses at IMD.
The fields outside of LEGO's Kornmarken molding shops were spruced up with 22 giant LEGO bricks made out of fiberglass. The bricks, which are 100 times the size of a normal LEGO brick, serve as a colorful backdrop to what had become the busiest intersection in Billund. LEGO also opened the LEGO Idea House. Part auditorium, part museum, the LEGO Idea House is a showcase for employees to learn about LEGO's past and future products, philosphy, attitudes and cultural values.
As the "magic barrier" of a million visitors in a single season to LEGOLAND Park was broken, the "Auto 2000" exhibit opened at the Park, featuring seventeen cars of the future, built from LEGO bricks by European design students.
The first of the 9-volt LEGO Trains sets that use the current transformer and Speed Regulator were released in 1991. The Speed Regulator allows LEGO Trains engineers to make the trains go forwards and backwards and control the speed. The LEGO-owned Hotel vis-a-vis across the street from LEGOLAND Park (formerly the Esso Motor Hotel) was renamed to be Hotel LEGOLAND, and underwent major rennovation.
The new LEGO System logo was introduced in 1992 after a design project that lasted several years. The DUPLO series saw the introduction of the Toolo line in 1992. Models introduced in this line, such as cars, cranes and helicopters, could be built with an included Toolo screwdriver. Another product line targeted towards girls, Paradisa was released with its island motif and pastel color scheme.
A new Technical Research and Development center was opened in Zug, Switzerland in September of 1992. Three months later, the first LEGOLAND Park outside of Denmark was announced. LEGOLAND Windsor, about 20 miles outside of London, would open in April of 1996.
Two Guiness Book of Records feats were accomplished in 1992 as well. A 545-meter LEGO train setup is built with three locomotives, and the world's largest LEGO castle, measuring 4.45 meters by 5.22 meters, was built on Swedish TV from over 400,000 LEGO bricks.
The Brickvac was introduced to the Basic series in 1993. The Brickvac is a sort of "vacuum cleaner" for LEGO elements. DUPLO hit the rails, with new train sets. Push-along trains as well as electic trains powered by 1.5-volt batteries were introduced.
Also in 1993, Carlsbad, California was selected as the future site of the first LEGOLAND Park in the United States. The park will open in 1999. In 1993, approximately 8,500 people were employed by the various LEGO companies.
The next girl-oriented product was launched in 1994 as Belville becomes part of the LEGO System program. Construction began on LEGO Family Park in Windsor, England on April 6th, 1994.
DUPLO PRIMO (called DUPLO BABY in North America) was launched in 1995, catering to the six to twenty-four-month-old children's market. LEGO Basic sets were renamed to FreeStyle and are marketed as part of the LEGO System program. Aquazone, the first new series since Pirates, was introduced in 1995. It was also the first theme to be released with two distinct sub-themes: AquaNauts and AquaSharks.
Godtfred Kirk Christiansen died on July 13th, 1995.
Another new series, Wild West, was introduced in 1996. This series featured brown bricks made to look like they were constructed from chopped logs. Time Cruisers, a controversial group of sets in the Town series, were the first sets to feature mini-figs who had noses.
LEGOLAND Windsor opened on March 29th, 1996. Meanwhile, LEGOLAND Billund welcomed its 25 millionth visitor! LEGO also started up a new unit, called SPU Darwin. The goal of the Darwin group was to develop software based on and relating to LEGO products. At the same time, Mindscape was working on their first LEGO-licensed product (and the first software product licensed from the LEGO company), called LEGO Island. 1996 was also the year that LEGO's official World Wide Web site went online.
LEGO introduced its first CD-ROM, bundled with the Technic 8299 Rescue Submarine.
The information on this page was compiled from a few sources in addition to our own database of info:
The official LEGO web site: http://www.lego.com
Tom Pfeifer's rec.toys.lego FAQ: http://www.multicon.de/fun/legofaq.html
'LEGO Facts & Figures', January 1994, as relayed by Jeff Crites: http://www.mdn.com/crites/LEGO/denmark.html
If you have any information to add to this page, please let us know by sending us some e-mail. Thanks!
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Text and background graphics © 1997 Zucaro Internet Publishing. All rights reserved. Pause and the Pause logo are trademarks of Zucaro Internet Publishing.