In 1946,Danish toy-maker Ole Kirk Kristiansen & his son Godtfred purchased a plastic injection molding machine, and began playing around with plastic brick designs. Their first designs were called “Automatic Binding Bricks”, a name which soon gave way to the familiar LEGO (officially LEGO Mursten, or LEGO Brick) name. LEGO, the name of their toy company since 1934, comes from the danish “Leg Godt”, or “Play Well”, and not from the Latin verb, as is often believed. They enjoyed considerable success in the Danish and German markets and began looking to expand their sales. On January 28th, 1958, Godtfred submitted a US patent application for their innovative interlocking plastic brick using a new coupling mechanism, ushering in the LEGO brick nearly everyone has seen or stepped on in bare feet.
Since 1958, the LEGO toy line has diverged, offering Duplo blocks for small children (which are twice the size of regular blocks in all dimensions, thus hard to swallow), the Technic line for creating mechanical systems with shafts, axles, gears, and pulleys, and Boost and Mindstorms, for the creation of simple, programmable robots and vehicles. Among these lines are common sets (basically a box of assorted bricks) and themed sets. The themes run the gamut from the evergreen City sets, to sets based upon popular media (Super Heroes, Star Wars, etc.), to Science Fiction and Fantasy themes of LEGOs own design (such as Classic Space, Ninjago, Nexo Knights, etc.). Ninjago, Batman, and the City sets have even featured in numerous television and movie productions, and the Super Heroes and Star Wars have their own video games. There are also more advanced themes, like Creator and Architecture, where LEGO elements are used to create detailed reproductions of real world objects.
The design of the coupling mechanism has remained essentially unchanged since then. This is not because it is perfection, or because the company is out of ideas, but because the company has taken a very long view of their product. Along with a solid commitment to safety, creativity, and imaginative, endless play, LEGO refuses to engage the “planned obsolescence” game.
The plastic used, Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), is a tough plastic. It’s non-toxic and very resistant to acids (if you swallow a LEGO, chances are good it will pass through relatively unharmed). It’s also a plastic that can be ‘tweaked’, and LEGO has tweaked their formulation to get a good balance of durability, stiffness, and flexibility. This tweaking adds to the cost; however, you get a plastic brick that can literally be handed down to your kids and grand kids. My son has all of my old LEGOs, from when I was 6, mixed into his. Those are 40 year old bricks, that still work seamlessly with the newer bricks he got for Christmas. Some of them are a bit discolored, but that’s more to do with having grown up with parents who smoked cigarettes, than anything to do with the plastic.
Of course, should your bricks break or otherwise wear out, you can recycle them. Most recycling streams can take them, and LEGO is actively working towards a plastic that is not petroleum based.
While LEGO still creates the classic brick, the variety of ‘bricks’ available causes the term to be insufficient to the task, thus the varies pieces and parts and bricks are collectively known as LEGO Elements. And the variety is incredible, thus the elements are broken out into categories.
The first is the oldest, the brick, which is a hollow plastic block with a top surface covered in regularly spaced studs, and a bottom cavity designed to accept and hold onto those studs. The number of studs on the top determines the brick size. So a brick with eight studs on top arranged in two rows of four studs is known as a 2×4 brick.
The next category is the plate, which is 1/3 as tall as a brick; i.e. you can stack three plates together to get a brick. Then there are straight slopes, which have an angled face. Curved slopes, which are similar to straight ones, but with more curvature to the element. Tiles, which are plates and small slopes with no studs on top.
Then we have cylinders, cones, wedges, wings, Technic bricks, Technic plates, and Technic beams. For vehicles, there are shafts, axles, gears, steering wheels, levers, and wheels, along with cockpit glass and printed elements showing control panels and HUDs. Buildings have walls and windows, and flowers and leaves. There are also Minifigures, which are the little LEGO people you see everywhere. Minifigures have a vast array of tools and clothing they can wear and use. There are also motors and controls for the robotics sets. The list goes on.
Oh, and they have the brilliant Brick Separator. These did not exist when I was growing up. I had to use a knife, or my teeth (I still have LEGOs with tooth marks). The original was introduced in the 1990’s, but wasn’t very good. The one at the link came about in 2011 and is awesome. I have five of them.
The beauty of the system, however, is that every element can connect to every other element in some fashion. It’s not a perfect system, because you could not, for instance, attach this Minifigure weapon directly to a common brick. However, you could connect a plate with a clip to the brick, and then mount the weapon in the clip, or you could use a plate or brick with hollow studs and mount the weapon that way, or you could mount it to a Technic brick, since every Technic brick has hollow studs.. But the elements are designed such that there are common dimensions that persist throughout the system. Such as our example, where the outer diameter of a Minifigure weapon or tool handle is the same as the inner diameter of a clip or a hollow stud. That is but one example of how carefully the system is designed to ensure that there is always a way to get things connected. These common dimensions are so consistently used that you’ll often find ways to connect elements that were not obvious, but still work.
And that inter-connectivity is important, especially as the element lines have expanded to include more and more variety, and flexibility. Some years back, LEGO introduced Bionicle, which was their first attempt at creating action figures. Each set was a figure that could be anywhere from about 2″ tall, to 6″ or 7″ tall. The figures were built out of some very non-standard elements, such as torsos, arms and legs, and armor, that included a lot of ball and socket joints. At first glance, you might not think that there was any way that these elements could connect to other, more common, LEGO elements. However, if you look at the Bionicle elements you’ll notice holes and studs of familiar dimension, because they were always intended to link up readily with common Technic elements , and common Technic elements could link up easily with standard elements . So even if you didn’t care for Bionicle, but Grandma got you one for your birthday anyway, you could probably still use the elements with other elements in your collection.
In short, it doesn’t matter what LEGO set you get, even if you don’t really care for the theme, the elements are still useful. Of course, sometimes you want a specific element, because it’s really useful, but you don’t want to have to find a buy a whole set. Luckily, thanks to the internet, marketplaces exist on sites like Brick Owl and Bricklink, where you can browse inventories and order just the parts you want or need.
One of the expected outcomes of a building system this old, this consistent, and this flexible, is that the adults like me, who grew up loving their LEGOs, keep playing with them (especially once they have kids and can totally blame their habit on the kids). So you have the Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOL, seriously, it’s an accepted title and acronym). And the adults can get really creative.
LEGO, being far from stupid, has a site called LEGO Ideas. Adults and kids can get a free account on the site and upload images of their creations (a MOC, or My Own Creation). If their creations gain enough attention, they go up for consideration as production sets. That’s how the Tron and Voltron sets came to be. However, not everyone wants to bother with trying to get their creations noticed by LEGO, so they just upload to places like Flickr, and sites like Brick Brothers tend to notice them and blog about them. However, despite how incredible some MOCs are, one thing I’ve learned is that AFOLs generally do not build models to be played with by kids. I’ve recreated a few that I’ve seen, and found the finished model far too fragile for Bug to play with. If parts are constantly falling off just from handling the model, he loses interest pretty quick.
LEGO also attempted to give people a way to build models without having to sort through their bricks, by creating the LEGO Digital Designer. However, they pretty much gave up on the software. Not because it wasn’t something people wanted, it was because (IMHO) LEGO is not a software company, and didn’t really understand how to build it. Luckily, the developer community has a lot of AFOLs, and Bricklink was able to get a collaborative effort together to create Stud.io, which is what LEGO should have tried building, if they’d known what they were doing. Stud.io is nice, because it not only allows you to assemble your LEGO model virtually, it can assemble a parts list and instructions for you as well, so if you really want to share your creation, you can share the Stud.io files. Oh, and it’s free.
Also, since LEGO dimensions are known, and ABS is a common 3D print media, you can print your own LEGOs. They won’t be as tough as actual LEGOs, but if you really need a hard to find part, or you want to build a custom part, the option is there.
Despite the failure of LDD, LEGO did do a smart thing in the digital realm. They digitized as many sets of LEGO set instructions as they could, and put them online as PDFs. Now I can recycle the instructions once Bug is done with them, since I can always just go download them later if I need to. If you see a set in the store you’d like to build, think you have the parts, but don’t want to shell out the money, just grab the instructions and give it a go. I was also able to find the instructions for a lot of the sets I had as a kid. Not every set of instructions is up there, and the further back you go in time, the harder it is to find them, with nothing before 1989 (although you can sometimes search for the LEGO set number in Google and find scanned images of the instructions). Still, that is a massive archive of instructions. You can also find alternate instructions for a given set, or if you have set A & set B, you’ll find a third set of instructions that combines the two sets.
But all my cheer-leading aside, what do I think of LEGO?
Overall, it’s an amazing building set. So well done there are many companies that try to replicate it, directly or indirectly. The only building set that is (IMHO) on par with LEGO is the Meccano/Erector system (I had a number of Erector sets growing up as well). I love that it has commitment to child safety (small parts that are just big enough to get lodged in a windpipe are always hollow, so air can pass through until the child can get to a doctor), and to creative play. I love the variety and flexibility of the elements, both in color and style. I have always enjoyed playing with them, and still do.
That said, they’ve made missteps. I know a lot of young girls like the LEGO Friends line, but… well… this. Actually, LEGO did listen to that (maybe not that one specifically, but that sentiment), and a lot of sets now include female Minifigures.
They’ve also seem to have a few annoying habits I’ve noticed.
I’m not a huge fan of all the media tie-ins. Yes, things like X-Wings, and Tie-Fighters are cool LEGO models (and of course, this), but they can get carried away at times. You don’t need to tap that well 6 ways from Sunday. These days, I feel like all their SciFi is from Star Wars, or DC/Marvel, or now the video game Overwatch. I kinda miss the Classic Space series, and I wish they’d try for something more SciFi along the lines of Ninjago or Nexo Knights. Something they came up with. They used to do that, but haven’t tried a new Sci-Fi theme since they aligned with Star Wars and the Comics.
I also see parts showing up in sets that are not consistent with the set. For instance, a vehicle that is white with red trim, but has some green and orange elements included. The elements are used deep in the model, so they aren’t visible on the finished product, but their inclusion in the set feels like someone told the design team, “Hey, we made way too many green and orange bricks last year. Try to incorporate them into as many models as you can!”.
Finally, I’ve been noticing a drop off in instruction quality. And by that, I mean that as I go through the instructions with Bug, I often see some pretty strange assembly logic, where sub-assemblies are constructed in such a way that adding them to the main model is difficult, especially for small kids. Or where elements are placed on the model first, and then wind up being in the way of subsequent elements, for no obvious reason. Basically, it feels like quality control is being done by adults, and they aren’t using kids from the younger side of the age scale to test instruction sets to see how well the kids can follow them.
Still, it’s a fantastic toy system, one I am always happy to spend money on, because I know that when my son eventually breaks his LEGO toy and loses interest, I won’t be throwing it out, I’ll just be helping him recycle it into a new toy. Or something even cooler.