Brick by Brick: A History of LEGO

People of all ages have come to love the LEGO Group and its plastic bricks. A wealth of experience in engineering, testing, and development has changed LEGO from a maker of wooden toys in Europe to a global manufacturer of construction toys based around interlocking plastic bricks. The turn of the millennium has seen LEGO further evolve, both designing licensed sets since the debut of LEGO® Star Wars and developing its own new themes, from Bionicle® to Ninjago® and beyond. Take a look at the history of the LEGO Group, from its early days under Ole Christiansen to the modern era of elaborate sets and creative building. And, be sure to look at our collection, opens a new window for all sorts of books on LEGO!

Only the Best: LEGO’s Origin

Ole Christiansen was set on the path that would lead to the creation of the LEGO® brick by the Great Depression. He first set up the wood shop that would become the LEGO Group in 1916, opens a new window in Billund, Sweden. Originally a supplier of wooden farm equipment, Ole’s business was hit hard by the Great Depression in 1929. He had made miniatures of his furniture and farm equipment as design aids,, opens a new window and this inspired him to start building wooden toys. He began making toys in 1932 and persisted, even though he did not initially make a profit. By 1935,, opens a new window he decided to commit to producing only toys and challenged his employees to come up with a name for the new company. The winner was a phrase based on two Danish words: LEg (Play) and GOdt (Well). These words combined to form LEGO,, opens a new window the name Christiansen chose for his company.

LEGO began producing plastic toys after World War II. In 1947, Ole Christiansen began to look at designs of plastic toys from other companies, including the “Self-Locking Binding Bricks” from the British company Kiddicraft., opens a new window These bricks inspired LEGO to begin making “Automatic Binding Bricks” in 1949., opens a new window Although first officially called LEGO® Bricks in 1953,, opens a new window these early bricks were not the same design as those of today and did not bind together as well. The key to the modern design came in 1958,, opens a new window with the addition of tubes and studs on the bottom of bricks to aid grip.

Since 1958, despite taking many new forms and shapes, the basic concept of the LEGO® Brick has remained the same. The design of the basic brick is built to hold together, with tubes on the bottom and studs on the top. LEGO® design is based around modularity., opens a new window The bricks are made to be simple, but also so they can be assembled in as many ways as possible. Bricks are all assembled to very specific diameters so they can fit together perfectly. Because this “LEGO® Unit” is always kept to in any LEGO® Brick design, it ensures the bricks can be made into both a specific set design, but also allowing them to create many other set designs when combined with other bricks–-including some LEGO’s designers could not have imagined. The Lego® Unit allows Lego design to keep to Christiansen’s ideal:, opens a new window “Only the best is good enough."

Minifigures on the Scene

The next important design element LEGO introduced was the Minifigure in 1975. The original LEGO® Minifigure was quite different, opens a new window from those of today. They did not have moving arms or legs, and there was no printed face. The modern LEGO® Minifigure first appeared in 1978., opens a new window

These new figures were designed by Jens Nygard Knudsen, with movable hands and legs to allow for a greater variety of play. The Minifigures were all designed to be four LEGO® bricks tall to scale well with LEGO® buildings, and all had the same smiling expression. Over the years, LEGO would gradually introduce more variety into the design of its figures. Faces first became more detailed with the launch of LEGO® Pirates in 1989., opens a new window These figures featured detailed beards, eyepatches, and facial expressions printed on the head brick. LEGO began making Minifigures with the likenesses of real people with the launch of LEGO® Star Wars, opens a new window in 1999. Minifigures in the Star Wars line quickly became more detailed over the 2000s, more closely resembling the actors’ faces and changing from bright yellow to more natural skin tones.

As LEGO’s use of licensed themes expanded from the 2000s to the present day, a greater variety of shapes and sizes of Minifigures have appeared. Some Minifigures have been designed with leg pieces that are much shorter (Frodo, opens a new window and Gimli, opens a new window) or longer (the Na’Vi, opens a new window from Avatar). Many animals have also been produced to Minifigure scale. The first animal, a yellow bird, appeared in 1983., opens a new window

LEGO Experiments with New Worlds: The 2000s to the Present

LEGO has experimented with many new themes and licenses since the turn of the millennium. Its longest running and most successful licensed theme is LEGO® Star Wars. Since 1999,, opens a new window LEGO has released sets featuring vehicles, characters, and places from films and TV series set in the Star Wars universe. Some of the sets have become nearly as elaborate, opens a new window as the film sets were. The 2020 Mos Eisley Cantina set was made of 3,000 LEGO pieces! LEGO has premiered other movie-based themes over the last two decades, including Harry Potter,, opens a new window Jurassic World,, opens a new window and Lord of the Rings., opens a new window None have had the longevity and number of sets that Star Wars has featured. LEGO has produced Star Wars helmets,, opens a new window buildable figures,, opens a new window programmable robots,, opens a new window and dioramas., opens a new window With LEGO retaining the rights until at least 2032, who knows what sets will be made next?

The company has also continued to create original themes with many different styles and influences. In the early 2000s, LEGO was experiencing a downturn in sales, and some in the company wanted to abandon bricks altogether. The result was Galidor®,, opens a new window a line of action figures disliked by most LEGO fans. Galidor® figures did not use any LEGO® bricks but did mark the LEGO Group’s first use of rotation joints,, opens a new window now often used in LEGO’s mech and monster designs. The sets were designed around the concept of glinching. With glinching, any character could have any limb from another character inserted into their socket, allowing for the figures to be customized. The line was so poorly received that the LEGO Group blamed it for their near-bankruptcy in 2003.

At the same time as the roll-out of Galidor®, LEGO used parts from its Technic® line to create a different kind of action figure. Bionicle® combined the traditional LEGO aspect of building sets with the new format of a figure body and a “lore” told through its website, books, and video games. The buildable Bionicle® figures were much more detailed than LEGO’s earlier minifigures, and the backstory Greg Farshtey wrote for the line was long and detailed. Some books and movies from Bionicle®’s heyday can still be found in CRRL’s collection!, opens a new window After a decade of success, Bionicle® was retired in 2010, but LEGO had a replacement ready with Ninjago®, opens a new window in 2011. This ninja-based theme quickly became LEGO’s biggest success among its original brands. It is still running today, producing mechs,, opens a new window vehicles,, opens a new window and four city sets that can be combined.

Interest in LEGO is still going strong for both adults and children, and you might wonder what to build with your own LEGO® bricks. Visit CRRL and check out our collection of LEGO books and building guides, opens a new window for some ideas. Try building anything you can imagine!