It takes a lot of plastic bricks for the world's children to build creations straight out of their imaginations - and LEGO produces 19 billion of these bricks per year. The company also estimates that there are around 400,000 million people in the world who have played with the toy bricks.
If the numbers aren't impressive enough, consider that people are so passionate about the toy that the company built four LEGOLAND theme parks in Denmark, England, California and Germany. Two additional parks, one in Winterhaven, Florida and another in Malaysia, are slated to open in late 2011 and in 2012. The toy's popularity doesn't stop there. Artists, such as Nathan Sawaya, have created works of art out of the small plastic blocks and there are even world records for the largest LEGO structures, including tower, ship, bridge and even statue.
A failing business turns into a thriving toy company
When the Great Depression hit Denmark in the 1930s, Ole Kirk Christianson, a carpenter from Billund, Denmark, didn't have much work. He turned to making wooden toys in order to survive. His first toys were large wooden vehicles. Later, he would make wooden animals, such as ducks on wheels. In 1947, Christianson purchased injection molding equipment that came with samples of toy bricks designed by Hilary Fisher Page - the Kiddicraft Brick. Christianson spent two years developing and modifying the design until he came up with the LEGO plastic brick.
In 1961, the company was awarded a U.S. patent. The drawing in the patent illustrates the design of a hollow brick with small round rivets on top and three tubes on the hollow inside of the block. A 1950s television commercial for LEGOs (embedded below) shows boys and girls building items like planes and houses by using various sizes of bricks. "A whole new world to build," the commercial states. Images of LEGO animals, vehicles and buildings flash onto the screen.
The toy grows legs... sort of
The first LEGO minifigures were launched in 1978. This was a new concept in LEGO's evolution. Now, not only could children build a house out of LEGOs, but they had LEGO people to place inside. Since then, the company has manufactured around 4 billion minifigures.
According to LEGO, the first minifigures were genderless, with a neutral yellow face. Over the years, LEGO began to introduce themed minifigures, such as knights, astronauts and policemen. In the 1980s, with the release of pirate minifigures, mood suddenly seemed a bit more important, and the figures began to have facial expressions that depicted emotions, such as happy, sad or angry. By the 1990s, licensed figures from Star Wars created the need for specific characters and genders. The year 2003 introduced the NBA basketball minifigures and LEGO people changed from yellow to a variety of skin tones to make them more realistic. And just this December, the company announced its new initiative to target young girls with the introduction of its new and very girly minifigure, Olivia.
LEGOs for a new century
Today's LEGO remains interesting by regularly releasing new themed sets, such as Harry Potter and Toy Story. Still, the original design of the plastic brick remains the same. Each brick is created to meet the exact specifications of the universal LEGO system. A brick from the 1950s will still interlock with a brick purchased in the store today.
LEGOs are one of the most recognized toys on the planet and are for sale in over 130 countries. The company states that the average person owns 75 LEGO bricks. And the product has evolved beyond the playroom, as the bricks are also used today for concept and development work by designers to create three-dimensional models.
LEGO goes digital
LEGO moved into the digital age with the release of LEGO Universe, an online LEGO game world, in 2010. The website also offers wallpapers and interaction with others who love LEGOs. "Life of George" ($29.99) is a digital game where players receive challenges on their iPhone or iPod Touch (fourth generation), complete the building activity with plastic bricks and then capture an image, upload it and compete with others via George's LEGO website. There are several other iPhone/iPod apps available through iTunes, such as "LEGO Photo," "LEGO Creationary" and "LEGO Minifigures Collector." The concept of each app is that the user creates something with actual plastic or digital bricks, captures the image and shares with others.
LEGO is still as much fun as it ever was, but it has also grown up and become more than just a toy; it's a tool for designers, a work of art, a competition and a theme park franchise. The price varies, but the Bricks and More starter set retails for $14.99.