It had all the makings of a folly or a fairy tale: The widowed toymaker living in a house in the middle of town with his four boys, spending his money and time on a machine that might spit out these plastic bricks he had in mind. But by then the boys were grown and the toy company had close to fifty employees. Already Lego was playing with the idea of exporting its wooden toys, as well as diversifying—that is, making toys in plastic.
Ole Kirk called his new product Automatic Binding Bricks, which were cribbed in part from the British Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Bricks. Like the Kiddicraft bricks, Ole Kirk’s were at first hollow plastic rectangles. He sold them in four colors, only in Denmark, without the interior tubes that would soon revolutionize everything.
Today the company is still family owned, primarily by Ole Kirk’s grandson Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, who, according to Forbes, has a personal fortune of nearly $10 billion. (Even in the recession of 2008, as the toy industry died on the vine, Lego profits were up 31.5 percent. Last year, as further evidence of the brand’s enduring popularity, The Lego Movie grossed nearly half a billion dollars worldwide.)
In the center of town, the toymaker’s original house is now a quaint museum called the Idea House, and one exhibit shows Ole Kirk’s mind working on the initial problem of building a better brick. A patent application itemizes at least twelve designs with which the company was experimenting, or perhaps claiming as its own to block future competition. What emerged from this cogitation was the simple, if multifarious, Lego brick as we know it, with its familiar, almost primitive interior tubes and studded surface, which, when attached to another brick, creates instant stability and what the Lego people call clutch power. In other words, small hands can attach and unattach the bricks with this “stud-and-tube coupling system,” while the bricks are strong enough to build with, sometimes elaborately.
From the start the toy exploded in the marketplace. By 1958, the year that the stud-and-tube coupling system was patented (and the year Ole Kirk died, passing final control of the company to his son Godtfred, who was already developing a unified “system of play” for the company by creating a standard brick that could be used in every set made thereafter), Lego had 140 employees.