The sets are produced by the LEGO Group, a privately-held company based in Denmark.
HistoryThe LEGO Group had humble beginnings, starting in the workshop of Ole Kirk Christiansen, a carpenter from Billund, Denmark. The word LEGO is a contraction of two Danish words leg and godt meaning play well. In 1916, Christiansen bought a woodworking shop in Billund which had been in business since 1895. He earned his living by constructing houses and furniture for farmers in the region, with the help of a small staff of apprentices. His workshop burned down in 1924 when a fire, lit by two of his young sons, ignited some wood shavings. Undaunted, Ole Kirk took the disaster as an opportunity to construct a larger workshop, and worked towards expanding his business even further; however, the Great Depression would soon have an impact on his livelihood. In finding ways to minimize production costs, Ole Kirk began producing miniature versions of his products as design aids. It was these miniature stepladders and ironing boards that inspired him to begin producing toys.
(Note: According to a LEGO employee in Denmark, Ole Kirk's move to toy production was actually inspired by the government, rather than self-motivated. Various literature appears to be to the contrary, implying that Ole Kirk actively decided to move on to toy manufacture. However, more personal recollections and retellings suggest that when Ole Kirk's carpentry shop was going out of business in 1932, his local social worker suggested or otherwise encouraged him to make toys.)
In 1932, Ole Kirk's shop started making wooden pull toys, piggy banks, cars and trucks. He enjoyed a modest amount of success, but families were poor and often unable to afford such toys. Farmers in the area sometimes traded food in exchange for his toys; Ole Kirk found he had to continue producing practical furniture in addition to toys in order to stay in business. In the mid-1930s, the yo-yo toy fad gave him a brief period of activity, until it suddenly collapsed. Once again, Ole Kirk turned disadvantage to his favor, turning the disused yo-yo parts into wheels for a toy truck. His son, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, began working for him, taking an active role in the company.
It was in 1934 that the company name LEGO was coined. Ole Kirk held a contest among his staff to see who could come up with the best name for the company, offering a bottle of homemade wine as a prize. Christiansen was considering two names himself, "Legio" (with the implication of a "Legion of toys") and "LEGO", a self-made contraction from the Danish phrase leg godt, meaning "play well." Later the LEGO Group discovered that "LEGO" can be loosely interpreted as "I put together" or "I assemble" in Latin.
When plastic came into widespread use, Ole Kirk kept with the times and began producing plastic toys. One of the first modular toys to be produced was a truck that could be taken apart and re-assembled. In 1947, Ole Kirk and Godtfred obtained samples of interlocking plastic bricks produced by the company Kiddicraft. These "Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Bricks" were designed and patented by Mr. Hilary Harry Fisher Page, a British citizen. In 1949 the LEGO Group began producing similar bricks, calling them "Automatic Binding Bricks." LEGO bricks, manufactured from cellulose acetate, were developed in the spirit of traditional wooden blocks that could be stacked upon one another; however, these plastic bricks could be "locked" together. They had several round "studs" on top, and a hollow rectangular bottom. They would stick together, but not so tightly that they could not be pulled apart. In 1953, the bricks were given a new name: LEGO Mursten, or "LEGO Bricks."
The use of plastic for toy manufacture was not highly regarded by retailers and consumers of the time. Many of the LEGO Group's shipments were returned, following poor sales; it was thought that plastic toys could never replace wooden ones. Despite such criticism, however, the Kirk Christiansens persevered. By 1954, Godtfred had become the junior managing director of the LEGO Group. It was his conversation with an overseas buyer that struck the idea of a toy "system." Godtfred saw the immense potential in LEGO bricks to become a system for creative play, but the bricks still had some problems from a technical standpoint: their "locking" ability was limited, and they were not very versatile. It was not until 1958 that the modern-day brick design was developed. The bricks were improved with hollow tubes in the underside of the brick. This added support in the base, enabling much better locking ability and improved versatility. That same year, Ole Kirk Christiansen died, and Godtfred inherited leadership of the company.
The LEGO Group matured a great deal over the next up and coming years. In 1959, the Futura division was founded within the company. Its tiny staff was responsible for generating ideas for new sets. Another warehouse fire struck the LEGO Group in 1960, consuming most of the company's inventory of wooden toys; fortunately for the company, the LEGO brick line was strong enough by then that the company decided to abandon production of wooden toys. By the end of the year, the staff of the LEGO Group had come to be over 450 total people.
1961 and 1962 saw the introduction of the first LEGO wheels, an addition that expanded the potential for building cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles from LEGO bricks. Also during this time, the LEGO Group introduced toys specifically targeted towards the pre-school market, and made an arrangement allowing Samsonite to begin producing and selling LEGO products in Canada, an arrangement that would continue until 1988. There were more than 50 sets of bricks in the LEGO System of Play by this time.
In 1963, the material used to create LEGO bricks, cellulose acetate, was dropped in favor of more stable acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS plastic), which is still used today. ABS is non-toxic, is less prone to discoloration and warping, and is also more resistant to heat, acids, salt, and other chemicals than cellulose acetate. LEGO bricks manufactured from ABS plastic in 1963 still hold most of their shape and colour 50 years later, and still neatly interlock with the most recently manufactured LEGO bricks.
1964 was the first time that instruction manuals were included in LEGO sets.
One of the LEGO Group's most successful series, the LEGO train system, was first released in 1966. The original train sets included a 4.5-volt motor and rails; two years later, a 12-volt motor was introduced.
On June 7, 1968, the first LEGOLAND park was opened in Billund. This theme park featured elaborate models of miniature towns built entirely from LEGO bricks. The three acre (12,000 m²) park attracted 625,000 visitors in its first year alone. During the next 20 years, the park grew to more than eight times its original size, and eventually averaged close to a million paying visitors per year. More than eighteen million LEGO sets were sold in 1968.
In 1969, the DUPLO system went on sale. This was a newly developed system, targeted towards younger children; DUPLO bricks are much larger than LEGO bricks, making them safer for very young children, but the two systems are compatible: LEGO bricks can be fitted neatly onto DUPLO bricks, making the transition to the LEGO system easily made as children outgrow their DUPLO bricks. The prefix "du" in DUPLO refers to the number 2, of which, a duplo brick is exactly twice the dimension of a LEGO building brick (2x height by 2x width by 2x depth = 8x the volume of a brick)
The 1960s were such a period of growth for the LEGO Group that by 1970, one of the biggest questions they faced was how best to manage and control its expanding market.
By 1970, the LEGO Group had a staff of more than 900. The coming decades marked considerable expansion into new frontiers of toy making and marketing. LEGO began to target the female market with the introduction of furniture pieces and dollhouses in 1971. The LEGO universe expanded its transportation possibilities with the addition of boat and ship sets, with hull pieces that actually floated, in 1972.
During this same period, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen's son, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, joined the managerial staff of the company, after earning business degrees in Switzerland and Denmark. One of Kjeld's first achievements with the company was the foundation of manufacturing facilities, as well as a research and development department that would be responsible for keeping the company's manufacturing methods up to date. Human figures with posable arms made an appearance in 1974 in "LEGO family" sets, which went on to become the biggest sellers at the time; in the same year, an early version of the "minifigure" miniature LEGO person was introduced, but it was not posable and had no face printed on its head. A LEGO production plant was opened in Enfield, Connecticut in the United States.
"Expert Series" sets were first introduced in 1975, geared towards older, more experienced LEGO builders. This line soon developed into the "Expert Builder" sets, released in 1977. These technical sets featured moving parts such as gears, differentials, cogs, levers, axles and universal joints, and permitted the construction of realistic models such as automobiles, with functional rack and pinion steering and lifelike engine movements. Finally, the LEGO world came together in 1978 with the addition of the LEGO "minifigure". These small LEGO people have posable arms and legs, and a friendly smile. The figure was used in many varieties of LEGO sets, allowing consumers to construct elaborate towns with buildings, roads, vehicles, trains, and boats, at the same scale, and populated with the smiling minifigure LEGO citizens.
Another significant expansion to the LEGO line occurred in 1979, with the creation of LEGO Space sets. Astronaut minifigures, rockets, lunar rovers and spaceships populated this successful series. The Scala series debuted in this year as well, featuring jewelry elements marketed towards young girls. Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen became the president of LEGO in this year; another decade concluded with LEGO toys still going strong.
LEGO bricks had always had a constructive potential that was seen by some educators as being an invaluable asset in helping children to develop creativity and problem-solving abilities. Since the 1960s, teachers had been using LEGO bricks in the classroom for a variety of reasons. In 1980, the LEGO Group established the Educational Products Department (eventually renamed LEGO Dacta, in 1989), specifically to expand the educational possibilities of their toys. A packing and assembly factory opened in Switzerland, followed by another in Jutland, Denmark that manufactured LEGO tires.
The second generation of LEGO trains appeared in 1981. As before these were available in either 4.5 V (battery powered) or 12 V (mains powered), but a much wider variety of accessories were available, including working lights, remote-controlled points and signals, and decouplers.
The "Expert Builder" series matured in 1982, becoming the "Technic" series. August 13 of that year marked the LEGO Group's 50th anniversary; the book 50 Years of Play was published to commemorate the occasion. In the following year, the DUPLO system was expanded to include sets for even younger audiences, particularly infants; new sets included baby rattles and figures with adjustable limbs. The year after, LEGO minifigure citizens gained a realm of knights and horses, with the introduction of the first Castle sets. Light & Sound sets made their appearance in 1985; these sets included a battery pack with electrical lights, buzzers, and other accessories to add another dimension of realism to LEGO creations. Also that year, the LEGO Group's educational division produced the Technic Computer Control, which was an educational system whereby Technic robots, trucks, and other motorized models could be controlled with a computer. Manaus, Brazil gained a LEGO factory in this year, as well.
In 1984, the Technic line was expanded with the addition of pneumatic components.
In August 1988, 38 children from 17 different countries took part in the first LEGO World Cup building contest, held in Billund. That same year, LEGO Canada was established. The LEGO line grew again in 1989 with the release of the LEGO Pirates series, which featured a variety of pirate ships, desert islands and treasure; the series was also the first to depart from the standard minifigure smiling face to create an array of piratical characters. The LEGO Group's Educational Products Department was renamed LEGO Dakta in this year; the name is derived from the Greek word "didactic", which roughly means "the study of the learning process." MIT's Dr. Seymour Papert, from the Laboratory of Computer Learning, was named "LEGO Professor of Learning Research," after his ongoing work in linking the Logo programming language with LEGO products.
A new series designed for advanced builders was released in 1990. Three Model Team sets, including a race car and an off-road vehicle, featured a level of detail and realism not previously seen in any LEGO series. Where Technic was mechanically accurate, Model Team was visually and stylistically accurate. The LEGO Group became one of the top 10 toy companies in this year; it was the only toy company in Europe to be among the top 10. LEGOLAND Billund had more than one million visitors in this year, for the first time in its history. The first-ever "LEGO Professor of Business Dynamics," Xavier Gilbert, was appointed to an endowed chair at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland. LEGO Malaysia was also established in 1990. In 1991, the LEGO Group standardized its electrical components and systems; the Trains and Technic motors were made 9V to bring the systems into line with the rest of the LEGO range.
Two Guinness records were set in 1992 using LEGO products: A castle made from 400,000 LEGO bricks, and measuring 4.45 meters by 5.22 meters, was built on Swedish television, and a LEGO railway line 545 meters in length, with three locomotives, was constructed. DUPLO was augmented with the addition of the Toolo line featuring a screwdriver, wrench, nuts and bolts; the Paradisa line, targeted towards girls, brought a variety of new pastel colors into the LEGO system and focused around horses and a beach theme. 1993 brought a DUPLO train and a parrot-shaped "brickvac" that could scoop LEGO.
A model of St Paul's Cathedral in London can be seen in LEGOLAND Windsor. It is made of thousands of LEGO bricks. The rotating model of the London Eye in the background is also made of LEGO bricks. Early Prototypes of the LEGO minifigure had a variety of skin colors and facial expressions, but production designs used only a yellow skin color and standard smiling face. LEGO Pirates in 1989 expanded the array of facial expressions by adding beards and eye patches. Soon the other themes caught on, ranging from sun glasses, lipstick, eye lashes, and so on. However, many of the older collectors resented the new look, saying they looked too "cartoon-ish" or "kiddy", and preferred the simplistic nature of the two eyes and smile. Nevertheless, from 1999 licensed series such as LEGO Star Wars and LEGO Harry Potter gave minifigures the personas of specific characters from their cinematic counterparts, but it was not until 2003, with the introduction of LEGO Basketball, that the palette of skin tones broadened to include more lifelike colors.
In the late 1990s, the LEGO Group brought out a series of new and specialized ranges aimed at particular demographics. The BIONICLE range uses Technic pieces and specialist moldings to create a set of action figures for boys, while Belville is a more conventional line aimed at girls and featuring large posable figures like those in the Technic range. A "LEGO 4 Juniors" group features 2-inch (51 mm) tall medium-sized figures ("medi-figure") without jointed arms, and longer legs than the classic LEGO minifigure. In 2003, the LEGO Group introduced a completely new system, Clikits, aimed at girls and consisting of customizable plastic jewelry and accessories. In 2004, LEGO added the QUATRO brick, for ages 1–3. Much like DUPLO and the "du" prefix, a Quatro brick is 4 times the dimension of a regular LEGO brick, and is compatible with the DUPLO brick. Also that year, they created the second line of Knights Kingdom themed product.
The late 1990s also saw the first products featuring licensed characters. In 1999, Star Wars LEGO and Winnie the Pooh DUPLO were released. These were followed by characters from Harry Potter to Steven Spielberg. Before this, LEGO characters were always designed in-house, and lacked the strong characterization of these licensed characters. A number of in-house characters after this point were strongly characterized with media utilization and non-LEGO System merchandising in mind, most notably BIONICLE.
BIONICLE was one of LEGO's most popular series. It was also an entirely new thing for LEGO; it had a real, authentic story, with books, action-figure style beings, and an entirely new world. Over the years, BIONICLE changed and grew, and eventually was discontinued.
In 2004, the LEGO company was losing lots of money. After trying a few things, they: Changed CEOs, sold the LEGOLAND theme parks to Merlin Entertainment, and discontinued many themes.
The LEGO trademark
The LEGO Group's name has become so synonymous with its flagship toy that many use the words "LEGO" (collectively) or "LEGOs" to refer to the bricks themselves, and even to any plastic bricks resembling LEGO bricks, although the LEGO Group discourages this as dilution of their trademark. LEGO catalogs in the 1970s and 1980s contained a note that read:
The word LEGO® is a brand name and is very special to all of us in the LEGO Group Companies. We would sincerely like your help in keeping it special. Please always refer to our bricks as 'LEGO Bricks or Toys' and not 'legos.' By doing so, you will be helping to protect and preserve a brand of which we are very proud and that stands for quality the world over. Thank you! Susan Williams, Consumer Services.
"LEGO" is officially written in all uppercase letters. The company asserts that to protect its brand name, the word LEGO must always be used as an adjective, as in "LEGO set," "LEGO products," "LEGO universe," and so forth. Nevertheless, such corporate admonitions are frequently ignored as corporate intervention in the use of language, and the word lego is commonly used not only as a noun to refer to LEGO bricks but also as a generic term referring to any kind of interlocking toy brick.
Design and manufacture
Since their introduction in 1949, LEGO pieces of all varieties have been, first and foremost, part of a system. LEGO pieces from 1963 still interlock with pieces made today, despite radical changes in shape and design over the years. Retail LEGO sets for young children are compatible with those made for teenagers.
Bricks, beams, axles, minifigures, and all other elements in the LEGO system are manufactured to an exacting degree of tolerance. When snapped together, pieces must have just the right amount of "clutch power"; they must stay together until pulled apart. They cannot be too easy to pull apart, or the result will be LEGO creations that are unstable; they cannot be too difficult to pull apart, since the disassembly of one creation in order to build another is part of the LEGO appeal. In order for pieces to have just the right "clutch power", LEGO elements are manufactured within a tolerance of 2 micrometers (0.00008 in).
Since 1963, LEGO pieces are manufactured from a strong, resilient plastic known as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS. Precision-machined, small-capacity molds are used, and human inspectors meticulously check the output of the molds, to eliminate significant variations in color or thickness. Worn-out molds are encased in the foundations of buildings to prevent their falling into competitors' hands. According to the LEGO Group, its molding processes are so accurate that only 18 bricks out of every million fail to meet its stringent standards. It is thanks to this care in manufacturing that the LEGO Group has maintained such a high degree of quality over the decades; this is one of the main reasons that pieces manufactured over 40 years ago still interlock neatly with pieces manufactured today.
Manufacturing of LEGO bricks occurs at a number of locations around the world. Molding is done at one of two plants in Denmark and Switzerland. Brick decorations and packaging is done at plants in Denmark, Switzerland, United States, South Korea, the Czech Republic and more recently, China. Annual production of LEGO bricks averages approximately 20 billion (2 × 1010) per year, or about 600 pieces per second.
Since it began producing plastic bricks, the LEGO Group has released thousands of play sets themed around Space, robots, Pirate, Vikings, Knight's Kingdom, Dinosaurs, cities, suburbia, holiday locations, Wild West, the Arctic, Ferrari, Trains, Spider-Man, Star Wars, Harry Potter, BIONICLE, and more. Sets containing new pieces are released frequently. In 2006 LEGO announced the procurement of worldwide toy rights with the cable TV channel Nickelodeon for building sets with themes from two hit TV shows, SpongeBob SquarePants and Avatar: The Last Airbender.
There are also motors, gears, lights, sensors, and cameras available to be used with LEGO components. There are even special bricks, like the LEGO RCX that can be programmed with a PC to perform very complicated and useful tasks. These programmable bricks are sold under the name LEGO Mindstorms.
There are several competitions which use LEGO bricks and the RCX, among other microcontrollers, for robotics. The earliest, and likely the largest, is Botball, a national US middle- and high-school competition stemming from the MIT 6270 LEGO robotics tournament. A related competition is First LEGO League for elementary and middle schools. The international RoboCup Junior autonomous Soccer competition involves extensive use of LEGO Mindstorms equipment which is often pushed to its limits. LEGO Mindstorms provides primary and secondary school aged participants of RoboCup Junior an easy and intuitive introduction to robotics. It also allows advanced participants an opportunity to modify the LEGO Mindstorms platform, adding their own sensors and actuators, as well as other mechanical, electrical, electronic and software related systems.
LEGO Group operates several LEGOland amusement parks in Europe and California. There are also several LEGO retail stores, including one in Walt Disney World's Downtown Disney area near Orlando, Florida and in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. As of year end 2005, there are 25 LEGO Brand Retail stores in the USA, a number of stores in Europe, and a franchised LEGO store in Abu Dhabi.
Novel applications of LEGO
LEGO bricks today are used for purposes beyond children's play. The LEGO Group itself has developed a form of business consultancy fostering creative thinking, called LEGO Serious Play, in which team members build metaphors of their organisational experiences using LEGO bricks, and work through imaginary scenarios using the visual device of the LEGO constructions and by exploring possibilities in a 'serious' form of 'play'.
A cult following of people who have used LEGO pieces to make sculptures, very large mosaics and complex machines has developed. Some sculptures use hundreds of thousands of pieces and weigh tens of kilograms. Large mosaics, fully functional padlocks and pendulum clocks, a harpsichord and an inkjet printer (built by Google co-founder Larry Page while at the University of Michigan) have been constructed from LEGO pieces. One such masterpiece solves a Rubik's Cube through the use of LEGO motors and cameras, a task that many humans cannot accomplish. Even an eclipse-predicting computer was once built! Photos of many fan creations like these can be seen at Brickshelf and at MOCpages. A group which calls itself "AFOLs" (for "Adult Fans of LEGO") is an important demographic for The LEGO Group, which has recently begun reintroducing popular sets from previous years to appeal to this group.
The LEGO system in art
One hobby among enthusiasts is to re-create popular scenes from famous movies, using LEGO bricks for the scenery and LEGO play sets as characters. Such movies are called "LEGO movies", "Brickfilms", or "cinema LEGO". They usually use stop-motion animation. For example, the Monty Python and the Holy Grail Special Edition DVD contained a version of the "Camelot" musical sequence redone with LEGO minifigures and accessories.
Artists have also used LEGO sets with one of the more notorious examples being Polish artist Zbigniew Libera's "LEGO Concentration Camp," a collection of mocked-up concentration camp-themed LEGO sets.
The Little Artists have created an entire Modern Art collection in a LEGO Gallery. 'Art Craziest Nation' was shown at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, UK.
Another notable example is the award-winning music video for the song "Fell in Love with a Girl" by the White Stripes. Director Michel Gondry filmed a live version of the video, digitized the result, and then recreated it entirely with LEGO bricks.
In 2009, TV Presenter and Broadcaster James May and 1000 other volunteers built a full-size house in a vineyard in Surrey, England, complete with functioning toilet and hot shower, using 3.3 million LEGO bricks for his television show "James May's Toy Stories".  It was valued as a property at between £5000 and £20,000, and as a piece of art Paul Nelson of the University for the Creative Arts valued it at £500,000. Due to issues over the license for the LEGO bricks and nobody purchasing the house after LEGOLAND Windsor rejected it over the cost and implications of moving the structure, it was demolished later that year.
Several webcomics are illustrated with LEGO, notably Irregular Webcomic!.
LEGO itself sells a line of sets named "LEGO Studios," which contains a LEGO web cam (repackaged Logitech USB Quickcam), software to record video on a computer, clear plastic rods which can be used to manipulate minifigures from off-camera, and a Director minifigure.
- Six eight-stud LEGO bricks of the same colour can be put together in 915,103,765 ways, and just three bricks of the same colour offer 1,560 combinations. The figure of 102,981,500 is often given for six pieces, but it is incorrect. The number 102,981,504 (four more than that figure) is the number of six-piece towers (of a height of six). The number of contiguous configurations for one through seven bricks, counting reflections but not counting rotations are shown in the table on the right.
- The L, E, G and O in LEGO are all capitalized (generally).
- LEGO is the world's largest tire manufacturer in terms of units.
- Zeus vs Thor. Epic Rap Battles of History Season 4 is animated with LEGO.
- References: The Entropy of LEGO, A LEGO Counting Problem, and OEIS Sequence A112389 in external links.
References, and further reading
- Bedford, Allan. The Unofficial LEGO® Builder's Guide. 2005. ISBN 1-59327-054-2.
- Clague, Kevin, Miguel Agullo, and Lars C. Hassing. LEGO® Software Power Tools, With LDraw, MLCad, and LPub. 2003. ISBN 1-931836-76-0
- Courtney, Tim. Virtual LEGO®: The Official LDraw.org Guide to LDraw Tools for Windows. 2003. ISBN 1-886411-94-8.
- McKee, Jacob H. Getting Started with LEGO® Trains. No Starch Press, 2003. ISBN 1-59327-006-2.
- Ferrari, Mario, Giulio Ferrari, and Ralph Hempel. Building Robots With LEGO® Mindstorms: The Ultimate Tool for Mindstorms Maniacs. 2001. ISBN 1-928994-67-9.
- Kristiansen, Kjeld Kirk, foreword. The Ultimate LEGO® Book. New York: DK Publishing Book, 1999. ISBN 0-7894-4691-X.
- Wiencek, Henry. The World of LEGO® Toys. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1987. ISBN 0-8109-2362-9.
- Category:Sets by item number
- List of themes
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- Portal:Collectibles and Merchandise
- News and community
- LEGOFan A LEGO Portal Web site run by fans, for fans
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- LUGNET LEGO Users Group Network
- Bricks in my Pocket (BimP) PodCast devoted to the LEGO community
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- Classic-Castle.com Castle-themed LEGO creations
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- Serious LEGO Various machines, including a Rubik's Cube solver
- LEGO Castle Project
- The Brick Testament - The bible illustrated with LEGO creations
- ME Models - Add a Little Realism to your Hobby - Custom Sets
- acarol.woz.org A fully functional 3 Digit Babbage Difference Engine made from LEGO TECHNIC
- LEGO on PC
- Making of a Brick An interactive flash video showing the making of a LEGO brick