For LEGO's 90th Birthday, Let's Take A Trip Down Memory Lane
Everyone has a LEGO memory. From childhoods spent building houses out of rainbow bricks to nights spent trying to dual-wield two controllers and play both Batman and Robin because your partner fell asleep in the middle of a level of LEGO Batman, we’re all connected to the cultural touchstone that is those little interconnected bricks somehow. What started in the workshop of Danish carpenter and wooden toymaker Ole Kirk Christiansen has since become an international corporation with five high-tech global factories (and one carbon-neutral one on the way!), over 830 stores in over 120 countries, and a portfolio of over 1,000 different sets. So in honour of this milestone birthday, let’s take a brief look at the timeline of LEGO’s journey with some quickfire history.
1930s - 1940s
In 1932, carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen is forced by a Global economic crisis to start producing smaller wooden products (ie toys), and in 1934 the company is properly formed, taking its name from the Danish phrase ‘leg godt’ meaning ‘play well’. In 1942, a fire breaks out in the factory (the second significant factory fire in poor Ole’s history), and the company has to grow and rebuild. Inspired by samples of a product called the ‘Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Brick’, LEGO begins creating ‘Automatic Binding Bricks’ of their own in the late 1940s, which would form the basis for LEGO’s trademark interlocking plastic bricks.
1950s - 1960s
As Christiansen’s sons join him in pivotal roles in the growing company, the company starts taking new leaps. Godtfred Kirk Christiansen creates what he calls the ‘system of play’, which basically sets the stage for what LEGO sets would become – a system that allows “all elements to fit together, can be used in multiple ways, and can be built together” – so that pieces from different sets can be used together in cohesive ways, and in a way that future-proofs the products. These first successful sets include a Town Plan and a Ferguson tractor.
During the 1960s, the now much larger LEGO company is making trees, wheels, and trains and their pieces are finally in motion. People are making whole villages and LEGO have accidentally become one of the largest tyre manufacturers in the world (by number of tyres produced).
LEGO has entered its DUPLO era and is also bringing in sets that include furniture, ships that float, and gearwheels that form the basis for the LEGO Technic series that would go on to become incredibly popular. For the first time, their cities can also come alive with the introduction of minifigures, starting with a family and then branching out to include firefighters, astronauts, and more. They also introduce minifigures with movable limbs and hands that can hold onto stuff, which do feel like they start out looking a little creepy – but you can see how they’d become crucial inspirations to later designs.
By the 1980s, people are using LEGO bricks to make robots. LEGO Technic sets allow computer-programmed robots to be placed in schools, marking a big technical leap forward for the company and for the ways it can aid children in learning about science and engineering. LEGO kits can be powered, there are now a bunch of different themed sets available, and DUPLO figures finally come in different skin colours! In the late 80s, LEGO also opens its first LEGO Centre outside Bilund, Denmark, which just happens to be located in our very own Sydney, Australia.
The 90s see the introduction of many of what we now see as staples in the LEGO universe. The brick separator that lets you undo your mistakes, a new line of motos, a whole lot of new themes, and – most importantly – video games. 1997 sees the release of its first computer game, LEGO Island, which puts you in the shoes of a minifigure in an early open world action-adventure style game. It was actually a pretty big success (and I never played it, but it sounds amazing), but it doesn’t hold the same place in my heart as 1999s LEGO Rock Raiders game, which released as a tie-in to the Rock Raiders themed sets.
The 90s also give us our first hint of licensed themes, with the appearance of the first Star Wars set in collaboration with Lucasfilm. May the force be with as all as we try to resist more LEGO purchases.
With the introduction of a bunch more new elements, LEGO goes from allowing the creation of amazing, functioning robots to also allowing the creation of tiny elemental ones known as Bionicles (I know the red one is pictured here, but the blue one is the best one). We see more themed sets more Star Wars, Harry Potter, Spiderman, Batman, Avatar – it grows exponentially. LEGO Architecture sets are introduced that take a more lowkey, stylish approach and make series business adults remember that LEGO is very cool. LEGO games based on franchises like Star Wars, DC and even Indiana Jones mean you can spend a bunch of time in virtual LEGO worlds when you can’t be building physical sets.
LEGO minifigures based on actual people also get skin colours that more closely match their real selves, which also feels like a big advancement, and LEGO remote control trains become a possibility. Plus, LEGO gets its first film!
LEGO embraces its pop culture collaborations even more, the 2010s brings with it a whole slew of sets based around brands we love. Winnie the Pooh, Spongebob Squarepants, Lord of the Rings (who didn’t want to make all of Middle Earth?), The Simpsons – I could go on. This decade also sees the release of LEGO Ninjago, which goes on to become another staple series for the company, as well as its own feature film in the form of The LEGO Movie, and then The LEGO Batman Movie (an amazing sequel).
In 2015, LEGO Dimensions properly merges the worlds of gaming and LEGO by releasing a gaming universe with expansions that all come with their own LEGO sets (the Ghostbusters one was my favourite) and gamers and LEGO nerds rejoice. The 2010s also give us LEGO friends, putting some focus back on a younger demographic!
Which brings us to now. LEGO continues to grow, particularly when it comes to the gaming sets that we at Player 2 (and probably you, if you’re reading this) are super interested in. We have LEGO sets based on consoles of yore, an entire LEGO Super Mario course, sets releasing with every new Marvel movie – it just keeps on growing. LEGO is no longer a thing for kids, but a thing that has followed us all into adulthood. It got us through the pandemic, it forms the basis for entire Museum exhibits and TV shows, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. We now have LEGO Vidiyo, and LEGO Brickfit, and a whole host of new ways to integrate LEGO into our lives, with no signs of stopping.
Some Fun Facts!
Let’s finish off this journey to the past with some fun facts about LEGO in the present day that are, quite simply, baffling.
- There are more than 60 LEGO element colours, and 3,600 different LEGO system elements.
- LEGO have produced approximately 670 million tyres, over 8.3 billion minifigures, and approximately 2.5 billion of their most produced shape, the 1×2 plate.
- LEGO brick moulds are accurate to within 0.004mm – less than the width of a single hair.
- The process of moulding blocks involves heating the plastic to 230 – 310 degrees celcius and injecting it with a pressure of up to 29,000 psi – over a thousand times more than a car’s tyre pressure!
This has been a very brief look into the long and storied journey of LEGO, and it barely scratches the surface. I’d encourage you to do more research if you’re keen, but otherwise, stay tuned for more LEGO content on Player 2 soon!