Perhaps one of the most beloved and well-known toys in history, Lego has entertained children for over 70 years, with the simple interlocking brick inspiring a franchise today which includes movies, games, competitions and eight Legoland amusement parks.
The brainchild of Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen, the toy nearly didn’t come to fruition, after a series of devastating fires, the Great Depression and Nazi occupation threatened the company’s closure.
However, today it is estimated that there are a staggering 600 billion Lego pieces in existence, and as of 2021, Lego was the largest toy company in the world.
So who was Ole Kirk Christiansen?
He was born into a poor family
Ole Kirk Christiansen was born in 1891 in the village of Filskovand, Jutland, Denmark. The tenth child of Jens Niels Christiansen and Kirstine Christiansen, his family were poor but Ole managed to achieve basic schooling. While working as a farmhand from the age of six, Christiansen developed a fascination with whittling wood.
In 1905, aged 14, Ole was apprenticed to his older brother to learn carpentry, and in 1911 he left Denmark to work in Germany as a carpenter for five years. While practicing his trade in Norway, Christiansen met daughter of a Norwegian cheese-maker Kirstine Sørensen. The pair returned to Jutland and married in 1916. They had four children, but after the birth of their fourth child, Kirstine died.
His sons accidentally burned down his house and workshop
In the same year that he returned to Denmark, Christiansen bought ‘The Billund Carpentry Shop and Lumberyard’, and started to raise his four young children on his own. At this time, Christiansen’s business had started focusing on producing household goods for the local community.
In 1924, two of his sons, Karl and Godtfred, were playing with wood shavings and accidentally set fire to the workshop, resulting in the whole factory and house burning down. In response, Christiansen drew up plans to rebuild a larger workshop with a family apartment, and moved his family into one room while renting out the others. By 1930, Christiansen employed a small workforce which focused on creating household goods and restoring and developing new buildings.
His most popular products were toys
The Great Depression reached its peak in 1930s Denmark, and Christiansen’s business suffered, and by early 1932, he had laid off all but 7 employees. His customers could afford little, so he began to create small, affordable wooden household products such as ladders, ironing boards, toys, stools and Christmas tree stands. Toys quickly began to sell above all else.
Christiansen’s son Godtfred joined in his father’s business, and together they produced many toy designs such as ferries, vehicles, aeroplanes and buses in high quality, painted birch wood that was beautifully packaged. Indeed, Christiansen believed in delivering the highest quality only, with a sign on the factory floor reading ‘only the best is worthy’.
However, times eventually got so tough that Christiansen had to dismiss his last worker. In order to keep the business going, Christiansen decided to produce cheap wooden products.
‘Lego’ comes from the Danish words for ‘play well’
Christiansen’s business slipped into bankruptcy. Nonetheless, he kept producing toys, even when his siblings requested that he stop as part of a bailout loan. In 1932, he founded an unnamed company that specialised in producing wooden toys such as yo-yos, pull-along animals and trucks. The pull-along duck quickly became a best seller.
By 1934, Christiansen employed staff once more, and held a competition amongst them to decide on a name for the company. The name ‘Lego’ was chosen from the Danish words ‘Leg Godt, meaning ‘play well’. By coincidence, it also means ‘put together’ in Latin.
Christiansen drew up toy designs for his employees to follow, and by the mid-1930s the company featured some 42 different product ranges, which were expensive but very popular. In 1944, the company was registered.
The business survived another fire and Nazi occupation
Despite periods of hardship, Christiansen maintained his business throughout the Great Depression and Nazi Germany’s occupation of Denmark during World War Two.
However, in 1942, a short circuit created an electrical fire which once again resulted in the loss of the whole factory, all of its stock and blueprints. Christiansen was close to giving up: however, owing to a sense of responsibility towards his workforce, he rebuilt the factory. In 1944, it was opened, and featured an assembly line.
The design for the Lego brick was patented in 1958
After the ravages of both world wars, natural resources like wood were in shorter supply. In 1947, the Lego company became the first toy manufacturer in Denmark to buy a plastic injection moulding machine, which, at a cost of 30,000 crowns, cost more than double the previous year’s profits.
Though Christiansen, who had spent his life working with wood, found the transition over to plastic difficult, the company turned over profit with its over 200 models of both wooden and plastic toys to its name. By 1949, the business produced a plastic product called the Automatic Binding Brick, and by 1950, Christiansen’s son Godtfred was to spend the next decade developing it.
He never saw the true success of Lego
Despite poor sales in the early 1950s, by January 1958, the design for the Lego brick was patented, and just months later, Godfred developed the brick as the basis for the company’s ‘System of Play’, which is the foundation of the modern Lego construction toy that we know today.
A third devastating fire burned down the factory and all of its contents just a few years later, leading the company to decide to move forward with plastic toys only. The mass-production of bricks, and now well-established ‘System of Play’ means that any brick produced by Lego since 1955 can interlock with any other.
Christiansen was never to know of the enormous success of his invention, dying just months before his son developed the almost literal ‘building blocks’ of the Lego bricks themselves. However, today, the Lego company is still largely run by the Christiansen family, who sell their beloved products in some 130 countries worldwide.