The Invention of Lego and the History of Ole Kirk Christiansen for Kids

Have you ever played with Lego?

I grew up playing with Lego and was one of my favorite past times. On Sunday afternoons we often dumped the big box of legos onto a blanket and spent hours using the legos to build all kinds of imaginative things. Lego was amazing because, unlike most toys, those awesome little bricks could become anything as your imagination run wild. Once I had my own kids, they got into Lego as well. My daughters love the Lego Friends sets and my son has many Lego City sets, but Minecraft sets are his recent favorite. We also have a huge tub of Lego I bought from a friend a few years ago and now my kids love to dump it onto a huge blanket and create things for hours on end. With the quarantine in place, we’ve been spending a lot more time with Lego. In fact, right now we have a table out and they build the Lego police station my son has played the police while my daughter plays the robbers and they pretend to be breaking out of the station. 

400 billion

Do you know how many Lego bricks have ever been built? 400 billion! Can you believe that!? Each year there are 20 billion bricks being made. 50 million every day and 36,000 made every minute in the Lego factories.

Think about how many people around the world enjoy Lego. Now imagine a world where there is no Lego. It’s kind of hard to imagine right, because so many people have spent so many hours enjoying Lego. But the reality is that could have happened — if it wasn’t for the birth of a man named Ole Kirk Christiansen.

Ole Kirk Christiansen

Ole was born over 100 years ago in Denmark, in the year 1891. He had a big family, 10 kids, and they were quite poor. When Ole was 14 he became an apprentice to his older brother, Kristian who was a carpenter. A carpenter is someone who builds things with wood. With his brother, Ole learned how to work with wood and make useful things like furniture. In 1911 Ole left his hometown and worked in Germany and then other places in Denmark — and then after 5 years returned and used the money he had saved to buy his own carpentry shop, so he could have his own shop and run his own business. 

Ole’s Family

Around this time Kristian also got married to a woman named Kirstine and had 4 sons: Johannes, Karl, Gottfried, and Gerhardt. Sadly, his wife Kirstine died while having their fourth son, so Ole was left to take care of them himself. And to make matters worse, in 1924 when some of the boys were playing in his carpentry shop, there was an accident, the shop caught fire and burned down. But Ole didn’t give up. He drew up plans and got to work building a new carpentry shop and home for his little family. And he continued working! 

Wooden Toys

Even though Ole was working hard as a carpenter times were tough, but he did find that when he made small objects for others like toy ladders and toy furniture, they were very popular. So he started making more toys. Around this time his son Gottfried joined in and they started designing new toys such as cars, trucks, airplanes, and boats. These toys were made out of the best birchwood and painted and finished to the highest standards. It was important to Ole that his toys were made well and of high quality. They had a big sign in the carpentry shop that read “Only the Best is Good Enough.”

As Ole hired new people to work in his shop and the company grew he decided to give it a name. They finally came up with the Danish phrase “Leg Godt,” which means “play well.” He smooshed the two words together and got “Lego!” 

Plastic Toys

By 1947 plastic was becoming more and more common, so Ole bought an injection-molding machine so they could make plastic toys. It was a very expensive machine, but Ole believed it would be worth it if they wanted to keep making beautiful toys. Soon all of their 200 different toys were made out of plastic. And Lego was a family business. All of his sons helped in the business. Godtfred was the managing director and later President of the company, Karl was the director of plastic production, and Gerhardt was the director of wood products manufacturing.

At this time, a different company was creating plastic bricks that could be stacked on top of each other to build things. Lego started creating a similar toy, but it was until 1954 that Gerhardt, Ole’s son, was talking to someone and came up with the idea for a toy building system — that all of these little pieces could be combined in all kinds of creative ways to create entirely new toys. [demonstrate with actual lego] If you’ve ever fiddled with lego, you sort of start with just a pile of meaningless pieces, but as you tinker and try things they start to turn into something new and wonderful! [fast motion video of kids playing lego with the pile — and showing their own creations]. There are other toys like this — if you’ve ever used Kinects, erector sets, or games like Minecraft, that let you build things. So Gerhardt, in his wonderful mind, started imagining this new building system, but the problem was the bricks didn’t lock together, snap together so nicely and tight like they do today. So for five years, they searched for the right kind of plastic and design that would let them build the perfect, snapping lego. 

Lego Building System

Finally, on January 28, 1958, they patented the Lego building system using ABS polymer as the plastic. And this ended up being the same year that Ole Christiansen passed away and his sons took over the company, with Gerhardt becoming the President or CEO. 

So you’re beginning to see how big things like Lego don’t happen in a day. Someone like Ole or Godfred didn’t just wake up and build the first lego. It started with the carpenter shop, then building toys, then plastic toys, then stacking bricks, which led to the next idea, the bricks, and a more complex building system. Most history is like this, which is what makes it fun for me! To see how things, change and evolve and step by step become what they are today. 

So by this time Lego is selling their bricks and creating new sets for kids all over the world to play with. These ranged from houses to vehicles to spacecraft. 

In 1969 came Duplo, which many of you may have played with. I know we have lots of Duplos that the kids use before they get into lego. 

Lego Facts

In 1978 the first Minifigure was created.

Today Lego is made in factories in Billund, Denmark, and other places in the world using huge injection molding machines. And Lego is now more than just a toy. They have Lego movies now and theme parks, and a few years ago Lego replaced Ferrari as the world’s most powerful brand. 

In 2011 the Space Shuttle Endeavor took 13 lego kits to the International Space Station to see how lego would react in microgravity. I thought that was pretty cool. 

In 2013 the largest lego model was created in New York City. It was a life-size X-Wing with over 5 million pieces. The other world records include a 112-foot tower 2 ½ mile railway.

Watch a live video about Lego with Breck

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About Bedtime History

Bedtime History is a series of educational, relaxing stories for kids and families. Learn about inspirational characters such as Jackie Robinson, Sacajawea, Neil Armstrong, and Maya Angelou. Other topics include space exploration, current events, and great feats of engineering such as The Transcontinental Railroad.