All Sorted Ep 43: LEGO Origins

On a linear episode of All Sorted Jeff and James look at the birth of LEGO:

 

In case you missed them, listen to the other parts of this series:

1891

  • Ole Kirk Christiansen was born as one of 10 children to a poor family, on April 7, in Filskov Denmark.

1897

  • Six year old Ole Kirk is put to work tending the family’s livestock.

1905

  • At the age 14, Ole Kirk becomes a carpenter’s apprentice to his older brother, Kristian Bonde Christiansen.

1911-1912

  • Ole Kirk finds carpentry work in Germany.

1912-1916

  • Ole Kirk moves to Norway and continues to work as a carpenter

1916-1923

  • At the age of 25, Ole Kirk returns to Denmark and settled in Billund, about 30 km away from where he grew up, and purchases a woodworking shop which had been in business since 1895.
  • He marries Kirstine Sörensen, whom he met while in Norway, and they eventually have four children:
    • Johannes (b.1917)
    • Karl Georg (1919)
    • Godtfred (1920)
    • Gerhardt (1926)
  • Life in Billund is difficult, with one writer describing the village in the early 1920’s as “A God-forsaken railway stopping-point where nothing could possibly thrive.”
  • Ole Kirk would spend the spring and summer working on any construction or home repair jobs he could find. In the winter he would make furniture and stock up on doors and windows.
  • As Ole Kirk’s reputation for honest, quality work began to grow, he began to win larger jobs.
    • In 1918 he built a church hall in Almstok, followed by dairies in Billund and Randbøl and a church in Skjoldborg.
  • Throughout the 1920’s Ole’s business was a struggle, and Ole was often on the verge of bankruptcy.

1924

  • The workshop burns down when Karl Georg (then 5 years old) and Godtfred (4) were playing in the shop and set fire to some wood shavings with a glue smelter.
  • Undeterred, Ole Kirk constructs a larger workshop. The new building was much larger than he could afford so the family would live in a single apartment next to the shop in the back and rent the other rooms out.

1929

  • When the Great Depression hits, Ole Kirk has fewer customers and has to focus on smaller projects, such as manufacturing stepladders, ironing boards and stools.
  • He begins producing miniature versions of his products as design aids. It was these miniature models of stepladders and ironing boards that inspired him to begin producing toys.

1932

  • The shop is now making piggy banks, pull toys, cars and trucks, and houses.
  • Ole Kirk’s son, Godtfred, starts working in the business at the age of 12.
  • Still in the heart of the depression, sales are hard to come by and local farmers would sometimes trade food in exchange for toys.
  • The shop was struck by lightning and burns down (again).
  • Ole Kirk’s wife Kirstine dies, leaving Ole to look after four children.
    • He sends his two oldest sons, Johannes (then 14 years old) and Karl Georg (12) to work on local farms in exchange for room and board.

1934

  • Ole Kirk marries Sofie Jörgensen
    • They would have a daughter, Ulla in 1935.
  • The yo-yo fad of the mid-30s gave a brief boost in sales until the sudden collapse of the yo-yo market. Ole Kirk would cut-up their left over yo-yo stock to make wheels for toy trucks.
  • Wooden toys were now providing the bulk of Ole Kirk’s sales. Wanting a new name to reflect the toy driven nature of his company, Ole Kirk holds a contest among his 7 staff to come up with a new name, offering a bottle of homemade wine as a prize.
    • Ole Kirk 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.”
    • Ole Kirk selectes his own idea and the name “Lego” begins appearing on their products.

1935

  • The release of the “LEGO Duck”, one of the most iconic LEGO wooden toys.

LEGO Duck

1936

  • Godtfred, being a dutiful son, produces a wood cut of his fathers motto, “Only the best is good enough” and hangs it up in the workshop. –

Only the best is good enough

(Source: Brickshelf)

1937

  • Godtfred is busy creating models and designing new toys.

1939

  • The LEGO factory has grows to 10 employees.

1940

  • Denmark is occupied by an advancing Germany.
    • This prevents Godtfred from travelling to Germany to continue his studies. Instead he stays in Billund and becomes a manager at LEGO.

1942

  • On the night of March 22, 1942 a short circuit causes an electrical fire at the factory and for the third time in Ole’s life, it burns to the ground.
    • The factory was a complete loss. The inventory, models, machinery, even the blueprints and plans were destroyed and insurance only covered a fraction of the losses.
  • Ole Kirk, now in his 50s is ready to give up, but he realizes his son, Godtfred and his now 15 employees would have very little job prospects if he doesn’t rebuild, so he takes out several loans and builds a new, larger 2300 m2 building on the same grounds as the old workshop.
    • This new factory is designed for assembly line production.

1944

  • LEGO has grown to 40 employees.

1945

  • Godtfred is granted his first toy patent on the now decidedly un-LEGO Automatic Pistol
    • First produced as a wood toy in 1945 and later as a plastic toy. This realistic looking pistol was one of their best-selling toys of the late 1940’s. It featured a spring-loaded mechanism that could feed projectiles into the barrel from a magazine, allowing rapid firing.

1946

  • There are conflicting reports on what would become an important event in LEGO history:
    • Some say Ole Kirk attends a manufacturing fair in England where he decides to spend 30,000 Danish Krone on a Windsor SH Plastic Moulding Machine becoming the first to buy and bring one back to Denmark.
    • Others say it was a salesman from Hull that visited Ole in Denmark that convinced him to buy three Windsor SH Plastic Moulding Machines before the rest of the family talked him into starting with only one.

1947

  • Denmark’s first plastic moulding machine arrives in Billund.
  • Looking at the different toys their new Plastic Moulding Machine could make, Ole Kirk and Godtfred obtain some samples of “Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Bricks”
  • “Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Bricks” were designed by Hilary Page in 1939.
    • Page had applied for a British patent on hollow plastic cubes with four studs on top that allowed their positioning atop one another without lateral movement.

1949

  • The Lego Group begins producing similar bricks, calling them “Automatic Binding Bricks.”
    • By “similar” we mean, “exactly the same” as the Kiddiecraft Self-Locking Bricks.
    • The “Automatic Binding Bricks” are only sold in Denmark, thus they do not intrude on the Hilary Page’s British Patent.
    • “Automatic Binding Bricks” are just one of around 200 different plastic and wooden toys in the LEGO would produce this year.

1950

  • Godtfred is appointed Junior Vice President the day he turns 30.

1951

  • Ole Kirk suffers a stroke and Godtfred progressively assumes more of the management responsibilities as Ole Kirk’s heath declines.

1952

  • LEGO is doing well enough to expand and a new plant is built at the cost of 350,000 Danish Krone.
    • As part of the expansion, the company now has its first canteen.
  • Plastic toys now make up about 50% of the company’s revenue
    • The “Automatic Binding Bricks” only accounted for 5-7% of total sales.

1953

  • The “Automatic Binding Bricks” are given a new name: Lego Mursten, or “Lego Bricks.”

1954

  • While on a trip to attended the London Toy Fair in 1954, Godtfred has a discussion with Troels Petersen, the toy buyer from Magasin du Nord, the largest department store in Copenhagen. Petersen mentions that he would love to see toys that were part of a cohesive toy system, instead of a bunch of one-offs.
  • Godtfred sees this as a good idea, and looking at the current LEGO toy line-up, he realizes the LEGO bricks would be the best option to build a system around.

1955

  • Godtfred introduces the revolutionary LEGO System i Leg (or System of Play) at the Nuremberg Toy Fair
    • Featuring 28 sets and 8 vehicles plus supplementary elements, all organized around a single, common theme — a townscape or street scene.
    • Reaction is underwhelming, but it does lead to the first real export of LEGO, as Sales begin in Sweden.

1956

  • Sales began in Germany.
  • LEGO was able to buy their first truck.
  • LEGO would license the moulds for Lego Bricks to SÍBS in Iceland.
    • SÍBS is the acronym for Sambands íslenskra berkla- og brjóstholssjúklinga (Icelandic Association of Tuberculosis and Thoracic Patients).
    • SÍBS was established in 1949 in Reykjavik as a rehabilitation center for tuberculosis patients, it includes an occupational therapy center, and they were looking for relatively simple plastic products for the patients to manufacture. LEGO Blocks fit the bill.
    • SÍBS would continue to mould, package and distribute Lego until 1977.
    • After 1977, SÍBS would no longer manufactured LEGO, but they continue to distribute LEGO in Iceland to this day.

1957

  • LEGO celebrates their 25th aniversary
    • Even though the name LEGO had only been around for 23 years, and Ole Kirk had first bought the wood shop 41 years ago.
    • Godtfred had joined the company 25 years ago, and is appointed Managing Director.
    • Needing to choose a tay to serve as a symbol of LEGO, they did not choose LEGO Bricks or the System of Play, but rather, a wooden hobby horse.
      • As a slogan they chose, “We’ve always tried to keep a ‘horse’s head’ in front of the competition by marketing quality toys!”
    • The celebration would also serve as a final tribute to Ole Kirk and the company he had built.
    • Since 1951, Ole’s health was in steady decline, and by 1957 he was no longer able to participate in the business.

1958

  • LEGO founder Ole Kirk Christiansen dies.
  • Ole Kirk is a man who managed to keep his business up and running through three fires, a global depression, and a world war. He was able to adapt to the world around him and took risks in investing in new tools, technologies and ever larger factories when others would play it safe. Against every challenge, he succeeded and by the time of his death had taken a woodworking shop with a handful of woodworkers, and grown it to a successful factory with over 140 employees. He left his sons, and specifically Godtfred a company poised on the verge of global success.
  • Godtfred is named LEGO chairman
    • Godtfred has risen to the top of the company, but let’s look at the man who would now be leading LEGO into the future:
    • He has the equivalent of a 10th grade education.
    • Being a poor reader, he would have his managers give oral reports.
    • What he lacks in formal education he would make up for in vision as he personally developed the two defining achievements of the company, the System of Play and the Lego Brick.

3 Generations of LEGO

On the next episode of All Sorted:

  • We will see just how far the third son of Ole Kirk Christiansen can take his company.
  • Finally, we ask:
    • How much worse would the world be if Ole Kirk had given up after any of the fires?
    • Did we miss anything important about the early days of LEGO? Let us know. Please leave a comment, or hit me up on twitter, I’m @StillSorting.

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