One of the most successful — and simplest — toy brands in history received a major boost on January 28, 1958: founder Ole Kirk Christiansen received a patent for a new design of his interlocking plastic bricks. When the blocks debuted on the market a few weeks later, it began a decades-long obsession with the toys for children all over the world.
The foundation for LEGO was laid 40 years earlier, when Christiansen purchased a woodworking business in the Danish city of Billund. By the 1930s, with the Great Depression in full swing, he found the best way for the company to stay afloat would be to produce miniatures of the products it already made — stepladders, stools and ironing boards — in addition to adding a handful of wooden toy designs.
The move worked. Diverse offerings and intelligent use of materials to avoid waste allowed the small operation to survive the severe austerity. By 1934, Christiansen felt comfortable enough to hold a contest for his growing staff to name his fledgling toy business. In the end, he decided on “Lego” from the Danish leg godt (“play well”) and expanded the factory to a 10-man group in 1939. In the middle of World War II, with Denmark under German control, Christiansen managed to quadruple his workforce.
When life returned to normal after combat ceased in 1945, the ability to use plastic for purposes beyond the military gave Christiansen the idea of creating small pieces which could snap together. Believing he might give children the ability to unleash their creativity and build more durable structures than wooden blocks could offer, he purchased a plastic molding machine in 1947. He laid out a plan for Automatic Binding Bricks, the first iterations of LEGO’s now-trademark product, and put them on the market by the end of the decade.
Throughout the 1950s, LEGO continued to grow its product line, making both wooden and plastic toys. The introduction of a “Town Plan” in 1955, a bid by Ole’s son Godtfred to move the company toward a more focused offering for the marketplace, would be a key step in the company’s ability to help kids construct worlds of their own using coordinated sets of pieces. Revenues continued to rise and LEGO Bricks were fairly popular, yet there were still complaints about the inability to truly lock them together.
Adding strategically-spaced tubes on the hollow underside of the bricks, LEGO engineers managed to guarantee a snug fit when the blocks were snapped together. On January 28, 1958, word came down from Danish authorities that a patent would be granted for the modern design and several others made to prevent competition. With Godtfred in charge after his father’s death, the transition to plastic-only manufacturing was complete within two years.
In 1961, the company began sales in North America, partnering with luggage company Samsonite for production. During the next eight years, LEGO exploded as a well-known toy company, making simple additions to the product line (wheels) and altering the composition of the bricks to stabilize color and shape for the long term. The opening of Legoland Park in Billund, complete with vast models of recognizable towns, gave the company an even wider profit base.
From then on, the tiny company sought to expand into ever-varying realms. Boats, ships and space sets were included by 1980. Lines designed for younger children and engineering-minded teenagers were developed. In the 1990s, LEGO sought out partnerships with other entertainment entities — most notably Lucasfilm’s Star Wars property and the Harry Potter franchise — to create licensed collections.
For its contributions to the playtime of children, the LEGO Group has been honored with the designation of “Toy of the Century,” a title that figures to stick as it carries into its fifth generation of fans.
Also On This Day:
98 – Trajan becomes Roman Emperor
1225 – Saint Thomas Aquinas is born in Roccasecca, Italy
1521 – The Diet of Worms begins, putting the writings of reformer Martin Luther on trial
1813 – Jane Austen publishes Pride and Prejudice for the first time
1985 – United Support of Artists for Africa records the hit single “We are the World” to benefit Ethiopian famine victims
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January 28 1985 – United Support of Artists for Africa records the hit single “We are the World” to benefit Ethiopian famine victims