Most of us can remember playing with LEGOs at some stage during childhood. Aside from accidentally stepping on one (anyone who did never forgot it!), LEGOs were – and are – great toys. They allow children to experiment and create with no preconceived rules as to what should be created. One child might build a castle with a helicopter pad; another might decide to make a boat with a unicorn holding stable. The possibilities for play were endless. What you may not know about this versatile toy, though, is that it began in a humble carpentry shop in Denmark.
1930 – Once upon a time in Denmark, a man named Ole Kirk Kristiansen bought a woodworking shop in 1916. However, once the Great Depression hit, he began to lose business and was unable to continue building the toys he once had. In 1934, he held a contest for his employees. Whoever came up with a good name for his company would win a bottle of wine. Kristiansen's own contribution, Lego, was chosen, as it was a combination of the Danish saying "leg godt", which translates to, "play well". The LEGO legacy had begun.
1940 – The LEGO factory suffered a terrible fire in 1942, completely destroying the building, but that didn't stop Kristiansen. The company quickly rebuilt and continued producing wooden toys. World War II introduced plastics to Denmark, and in 1946, Kristiansen invested in a plastic molding machine. Inspired by building blocks from the Kiddicraft company, LEGO designed and introduced similar bricks, called Automatic Binding Bricks, in 1949.
1950 – The new plastic blocks were officially licensed as "LEGO Bricks" in 1953, but people weren't as willing to part with their traditional wood or metal toys as Kristiansen had hoped. To help sales along, Kristiansen's son, Godtfred, created the idea of a toy system, where many toys could be sold as components of a set. LEGO Bricks were the go-to solution, and in 1955, a "LEGO system of play" was released, with different building block sets that could be combined to build a town. While this new idea was better received, it became clear that the bricks themselves needed an overhaul – they didn't stick together well, and they weren't very stable for building large constructions. In 1958, the bricks were reinvented and patented with the addition of hollow tubes, which held the top pegs much better than the earlier models. Unfortunately, Kristiansen died in the same year, and the company passed to Godtfred.
1960 – In 1960, a warehouse fire destroyed most of LEGO's wooden toys. Godtfred made the decision to abandon wooden toys altogether, and focus solely on the production of plastic toys. The next year (1961), Godtfred wanted to expand Lego's sales market, and through a deal with Samsonite, LEGO Bricks were introduced to North America. In 1963, the LEGO bricks received yet another improvement – instead of the earlier plastic, bricks were molded in ABS plastic, which improved their ability to stay together. The first LEGO model cars were released in 1964, and LEGO bricks were shown to the world at the Danish pavilion in the New York World Fair. By 1966, LEGO toys were sold in 42 countries. LEGOLAND opened in Billund in 1968, and had 3,000 guests attend on opening day. Even after this massive step forward in marketing, LEGO wasn't done yet - the first LEGOLAND film was produced and released in 1969.
1970 – The license agreement between Samsonite and LEGO ended in 1972, but the next year, 1973, LEGO opened factories in Connecticut and Portugal. 1973 also marked the appearance of LEGO doll house sets, which would be populated in 1974 with the arrival of the LEGO family pieces. 1974 also saw the establishment of factories in Spain and the acquisition of a hotel in Billund, which was renamed to Hotel Vis-a-Vis. English became the official factory language in 1975, and LEGO released a Moon Landing set, along with the first fire engine. The third generation of the Kristiansen family, Kjeld Kirk, joined the ranks of LEGO management in 1977, and yet another LEGO factory was opened – this time, in Australia. Kjeld Kirk quickly improved on the existing "toy system" by splitting it into a "system within a system", which meant that toy sets would now have different lines within themselves. By 1979, Kjeld Kirk was the President of INTERLEGO A/S – or, in effect, the manager of the company.
1980 – At the beginning of the 1980s, 70% of Western European families had bought LEGOs for their children. The company returned home in 1981 to the first LEGO World Show in Denmark. In 1982, a factory in South Africa was built, and the employees in Billund were treated to a 50-Year Celebration to mark the anniversary of the company. Factories in Brazil and Korea were built in 1984, and LEGO received huge promotion through a partnership with McDonald's fast food. The now-famous brick logo was designed in 1987, and LEGO had almost 6,000 employees working for the company. In 1988, LEGO became a sport with the first LEGO World Cup, in which participants competed to build the most elaborate structures with LEGO bricks.
1990 – At the end of the first year, LEGOLAND had its one millionth visitor in a year's time. The year after that – 1991 – Hotel Vis-a-Vis was reborn as Hotel LEGOLAND. In 1992, the second LEGO World Cup took place, and factories sprang up in Japan and Hungary. LEGO's official website rolled out in 1996, along with a new LEGOLAND park in Windsor. LEGO took another leap into the digital age by providing a CD with building instructions in 1997, but the brand had to undergo serious overhaul after, for the first time in the company's history, LEGO faced a huge revenue deficit in 1998. To help fight this, a LEGO World Shop was introduced to the Internet in 1999.
2000 – At the beginning of the decade, LEGO acquired the rights to produce Harry Potter products in partnership with Warner Brothers. Another LEGOLAND opened in Germany in 2002, but LEGO was hit by another deficit in 2004. The LEGOLAND parks were therefore sold off in 2005, and the new CEO of the company, Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, developed a five-year plan for LEGO. LEGO saw its 75th anniversary in 2007, and in the following year, the company celebrated the 50th anniversary of the LEGO brick. In 2009, LEGO not only acquired a partnership with Disney, but also launched a line of board games designed for the entire family.
2010 – A massive online game called LEGO Universe was launched in 2010, introducing a new way for children to experience LEGO. In 2011, the world's biggest LEGOLAND Park opened in Florida.
2012 – LEGO is still owned by Kristiansen's grandson, Kjeld Kirk. Sadly, LEGO Universe closed, but the corporate management of LEGO grew to include 22 people, and LEGO launched a new line, LEGO Friends, continuing the innovation and creativity that the LEGO brand has come to symbolize.