Updated: Sep 30, 2022
The small, colorful bricks that encourage a child's imagination with their multitude of building possibilities are the focus of our STEM program here at Brick League. LEGO has been around for decades and has remained a top toy that brings education to the hands of little ones in a fun way. I love learning how companies got their start, and the people who started it all. LEGO has quite the story. LEGO has a history of fires. Yes, fires as in multiple fires. And each lended it's hand to the creation of the toy we all know and love.
The company that makes the famous interlocking bricks started as a small shop in Billund, Denmark. At the time, Billund was an obscure village, and Ole Kirk Christiansen was just a simple carpenter with ambition. As a young man, Christiansen turned his love of whittling and playing with wood into a business and, in 1916, he opened his own shop. The LEGO company we know now was established in 1932 by Ole Kirk Christiansen, who was aided by his 12-year-old son Godtfred Kirk Christiansen.
At first, Christiansen’s shop produced furniture like ladders, stools and ironing boards. But in 1924, just as he was looking to expand his successful business, his sons accidentally set a pile of wood chips in the shop on fire. The flames it produced destroyed the entire building—and the family’s home.
Others might have given up with a total loss, but Christiansen saw the fire as an excuse to simply build a larger workshop. Tragedy continued to strike, however. In 1929, the American stock market crash plunged the world into depression, and Christiansen’s wife died in 1932. Bowed by personal and financial disaster, Christiansen laid off much of his staff and struggled to make ends meet.
Little did he know that those tragedies would lay the foundation for one of business’s great comeback stories. Since times were so hard, Christiansen made the hard decision to use his wood to create inexpensive goods that might actually sell. Among them were cheap toys.
The decision didn’t pay off—at first. Christiansen actually slid into bankruptcy, but refused to stop making toys when his siblings tried to make it a condition of a bailout loan. But his love of toys pushed the company ahead, even when it limped. He even renamed the company to reflect its new direction: leg godt, or “play well,” became LEGO.
In 1942, as Germany occupied Denmark, another fire threatened Christiansen’s livelihood when his entire factory once again burned to the ground. But by then, he was established enough to not only bounce back, but to be forward looking. When World War II ended, many traditional manufacturing products used to produce consumer goods simply weren’t available. As a result, many manufacturers looked to advances in plastics to create cheap alternatives.
In 1947, the company made a huge purchase that was to transform the company and make it world-famous and a household name. In that year, Lego bought a plastic injection-molding machine, which could mass produce plastic toys. By 1949, Lego was using this machine to produce about 200 different kinds of toys, which included automatic binding bricks, a plastic fish and a plastic sailor. The automatic binding bricks were the predecessors of the Lego toys of today.
Just five years after launching its System of Play, LEGO sustained a third catastrophic fire. Like the first, this blaze sealed the company’s fate: Since the fire burned up all of the company’s wooden toy inventory, the company decided to ditch wood for good and move ahead with plastic.
In 1953, the automatic binding bricks were renamed LEGO bricks. In 1957, the interlocking principle of LEGO bricks was born, and in 1958, the stud-and-coupling system was patented, which added significant stability to built pieces. And this transformed them into the Lego bricks children use today.
By the early 1960s, Lego had gone international, with sales in Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Germany, and Lebanon. Over the next decade, Lego toys were available in more countries, and they came to the United States in 1973.
As of 2018, Lego has sold 75 billion of its bricks in more than 140 countries 1 Since the middle of the 20th century, these small plastic bricks have sparked the imagination of children around the world, and Lego sets have a stronghold on their place at the top of the list of the world's most popular toys.
Today, Billund, Ole Kirk’s unknown town, is a tourist destination, and the LEGO Group has built itself into an industry titan. But it never would have happened without those simple bricks—or the fires that nearly destroyed a family’s dream three times over.