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Brick Empire: The History Of LEGO

Ever wondered how LEGO got started? Want it told to you in an adorable manner? Look no further than this Pixar-style animated short that tells you exactly how the company went from literally nothing to being one of the most loved and perennial toys in the world. What better way to celebrate the 55th anniversary of everyone’s favourite brick.

It starts in 1932 with Ole Kirk Christiansen’s carpentry business in Denmark. He’s just had to fire his last worker due to tough times, and not long after that, he lost his wife. Depressing stuff. He was down to nothing and still had four sons to take care of.

He was struck by an idea to make toys and started building them as a business. His son Godtfred helped him on the business end and Ole handled the practical building aspects.

A travelling wholesaler came to town one day and placed a large order into Ole’s workshop for Christmas. The workshop went into full production mode and made huge amounts of high-quality merchandise, before the wholesaler who had ordered the toys went bankrupt, leaving Ole in a really tricky spot.

Rather than give in, though, Ole forged onwards and said that he’d sell the toys himself.

By 1934, Ole decided to name the company to help it expand. He wanted to call it LEG GODT, which in Danish translates to “play well”, but he wanted it to be shorter and eventually he landed on LEGO, which actually means “I put together” in Latin.

Slowly but surely, LEGO grew larger and larger and started turning a profit by the late 1930s. Even when the war broke out, LEGO made do. Tragedy struck in 1942, though, when the workshop containing all of LEGO’s materials, designs and concept drawings burned to a fiery crisp in a storm. This nearly killed LEGO, but Ole didn’t give up. He built a new factory and kicked off wooden toy construction once again.

But wooden toys weren’t enough. Ole was looking around for the next big thing, and found it in a plastic moulding machine at a Copenhagen industrial show. The machine was first used to make plastic rattles and tiny plastic teddy bears, but he was still fascinated by the concept of tiny plastic bricks.

Ole’s son Godtfred went for a trip around the country to sell LEGO’s new plastic toys as something that could be fun all year round, and it broke the company out of the Summer sales slump.

Godtfred eventually came up with the next big thing for the company: a system that let kids make their own toys out of Ole’s block idea. In 1956, LEGO made the first System of Play that let kids build their own creations out of the bricks we’ve all come to know and love.

The System of Play expanded behind Denmark, but the problem was that the LEGO bricks didn’t stick to each other in the beginning. An idea was formed to install pipes in the top and bottom of the bricks so that they could link in with each other.

Now LEGO could be anything.

Sadly, Ole never lived to see the plastic brick dream come to fruition, and Gotfred had to live through yet another factory fire that claimed a lot of LEGO’s productions. But Gotfred, like his father, rebuilt the factory and this time, it was focussed entirely on building plastic bricks rather than the wooden toys the company had rode to success on. It was a risky move but it paid off, and in 1964, LEGO built an airport in the local town so that the company could expand internationally.

People came in droves to LEGO headquarters and eventually, it was decided that LEGOLAND would be built so that everyone could look at what could be done with LEGO without crowding up the offices. LEGOLAND was opened in 1968 and the company has been going in the family ever since then.

These days, LEGO isn’t just for kids. We’ve seen everything from LEGO movie re-enactments, Olympic stadiums, mini-Olympic games events and even LEGO video games.

And to think, it all started in a tiny workshop in Denmark. Happy 80th birthday, LEGO, and thanks for everything so far!

More: A look inside LEGO’s secret vaults.

Image: Benjamin Esham


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