Edgy Mama: Happy 50th, LEGO bricks

Happy 50th birthday, LEGO bricks, you rocking toy obsession of kids and geeks worldwide.

The world’s children spend an estimated five billion hours per year playing with you. Until recently, my two kids probably accounted for 5,000 of those annual hours. For which I thank you.

The primary LEGO lover in my family, my girl, has been obsessed with building with the plastic bricks since she was 2. As she approaches pre-teen status, she’s becoming more interested in other pastimes—sports, video games, books, Hannah Montana. Yet she packed up a box of special LEGO pieces to take on vacation last week.

In addition to my kids, more than 400 million children and adults will play with LEGO bricks this year. The more relevant number would be how many hours adults (and a few kids not related to me) spend picking them up off the floor.

In celebration of the LEGO brick’s birth, below are more fun facts, mostly from the LEGO Group’s Web site. (So you know, the group does not condone use of the word “LEGO” as a standalone noun. They prefer it as a modifier, as in LEGO brick, LEGO building set, LEGO sales.)

LEGO history began in 1932, when Ole Kirk Christiansen founded a small factory to make wooden toys in the town of Billund, Denmark. Christiansen named his toy factory LEGO—a fusion of the Danish words “leg” which means “play” and “godt,” which means “well.”

Fifteen years later, Christiansen discovered that plastic could be an excellent toy material (he probably didn’t realize that cheap plastic toys would become the bane of many parents’ existence, and potentially dangerous as mass-produced entities; think lead paint and choking hazards).

So, Christiansen bought the first injection-molding machine in Denmark. In 1949, he developed the LEGO brick prototype (which continues to be the perfect shape and size to inflict maximum pain when stepped on in the middle of the night on the way to the bathroom).

Although there have been slight changes in shape and design over the years, today’s LEGO bricks still fit the ones made since 1958. I know this to be true. After giving birth to the first grandchild and the first of a new generation of geeks, we inherited a large number of LEGO bricks that my Enviro-spouse and his brothers first played with in the 1970s. These bricks work perfectly with our new ones.

In 1963, the company began making LEGO bricks out of something called Acrylonitrile Butadine Styrene. Yum! According to the company’s Web site, this type of plastic “is extremely hard, has a scratch and bite-resistant surface, and is ideal for keeping the bricks connected.” I, too, thought LEGO bricks were indestructible. Then we adopted a puppy.

The ABS compound starts as granules (actually the compound, like all plastic, starts as liquefied dinosaurs, aka oil). The granules are heated to 232° C until they melt. Machines weighing up to 150 tons then press the resultant goo into LEGO bricks.

There are 2,400 different LEGO brick shapes. Each mold is permitted a tolerance of no more than one thousandth of a millimeter, so that all bricks stay firmly connected. If you’ve ever tried prying apart bricks that have been stuck together for years, you know how tightly the pieces seal (yes, I’ve used my teeth, although not as efficiently as the puppy).

LEGO fans, including adult enthusiasts, have built entire cities from LEGO elements. Adult LEGO lovers call themselves “AFOLs” (Adult Fans of LEGO). I swear I’m not making that up.

Enough LEGO bricks have been manufactured to give each of the world’s six billion inhabitants an average of 62 LEGO bricks. In other words, we could all get together, each with our 62 bricks, and build a scale model of New York City. (OK, I made that up. But if laid end to end, the number of LEGO bricks sold in one year would stretch more than five times round the world.)

Further mind-boggling information: There are, according to one mathematics professor, 915 million ways to combine the six basic LEGO bricks. I’m not sure if I’m going to tell my girl this, as she’s competitive enough to try it out.

Recently, my family created a quiz game to test our knowledge of each other. Questions like “What was the name of Edgy Mama’s first dog?” (Answer: Flower. He was a German shepherd.)

One of my girl’s questions read: “What’s my specialty in life?”

Her answer: “Making tiny rocket ships out of LEGOs.”

She might grow up to be an AFOL.

Thank you, little plastic bricks, for giving my kids, especially my girl, hours and hours of focused entertainment. Big birthday smooches.

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3 thoughts on “Edgy Mama: Happy 50th, LEGO bricks

  1. I loved Legos as a kid and have thought about buying some recently. This article may well push me over the edge and turn me into an AFOL.

  2. Gavinb

    Hi, I used to love Lego myself but it went through a stage in the 90s where you thought it was going to get extinct, whoever that may just have been me growing out if it lol, Now my kid loves it, especially the star wars ones but as you say – you find yourself picking it up of the floor more than anything else lol, He is 8 now and cant wait as we are traveling by ferry to Denmark and going to see legoland when we are their, it was not planned at first but the minute he found out about the legoland in Denmark we did not have a choice lol, who is the boss, I am starting to wonder. Thanks

  3. Ben B.

    It’s been a long time since LEGO started with the plastic bricks. 50 years…. a long time. Before that, they made ordinary wooden toys…. in fact, the boxes that early LEGO building sets came in were nice wooden boxes with a paper label on the cover. But, that was well before LEGO caught on in North America. Imagine going into your local Target and seeing a wooden boxed toy anymore. *laughs* Things sure have changed.

    Not enough girls play with LEGO in my opinion. I never understood why, it is a great, great toy for everyone. Maybe your girl will grow up to be an engineer someday!

    The sets nowadays just don’t seem to have the charm that the sets in the eighties did (this was LEGO’s first really successful line in North America). Sets such as those at http://www.toysperiod.com were what I loved back then…..Fortunately, the creative possibilities are still there in most of the current lines today. And, that’s what is important.

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