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Block party: Legos turn 50

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Posted: Sunday, December 21, 2008 3:39 pm | Updated: 10:48 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Ever wondered what percentage of the Earth’s weight is made up of Legos? The iconic plastic building brick turned 50 this year, and the Lego company estimates that in the course of five decades it has sold some 400 billion Legos.

From the original rectangular brick, Lego now makes more than 2,400 shapes. The Lego universe has expanded to include online games, movies, books, amusement parks, even a line of kids’ shoes.

Lego has even spawned its own language. “Brickfilms” are films, usually in stop-motion, made by fans. A LUG is a Lego User Group, an online community for fans. MOC stands for My Own Creation, fans’ building projects — usually posted on LUGs. AFOLs are Adult Fans of Lego.

The list of things re-created in Legos is mind-boggling. Aircraft carriers. Yankee Stadium. Nativity scenes. Wedding-cake toppers. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. The “Mona Lisa”, the Parthenon. Portraits of Barack Obama.

Here’s a look at how it all started, in a small workshop in Denmark:

1932: A Danish carpenter named Ole Kirk Christiansen switches from crafting furniture to wooden toys. To name his toy company, he coins the word “Lego,” from the Danish words “leg” and “godt,” meaning “play well.”

1939: A British toy maker named Harry Fisher Page invents plastic blocks that lock together.

1947: Christiansen discovers the plastic blocks and begins to refine their design.

1958: Lego design evolves to the state we now know it, with the “stud and tube coupling system” that makes for stable, strong, interlocking bricks. Bricks from this era still work with new ones.

1961: The Lego wheel is invented.

1966: The first Lego motorized train debuts. Norman Mailer builds a utopian City of the Future in his living room, using 15,000 Legos. It’s featured on the cover of his book “Cannibals and Christians.”

1967: Supersized Duplos, designed for small hands, are introduced.

1968: Legoland amusement park opens in Billund, Denmark. Attractions include a world of miniatures, life-size jungle animals and the Statue of Liberty, all made from Legos.

1975: The Expert Series is introduced, featuring complex sets for older builders, with working gears and cogs.

1978: The first minifigure arrives, with movable arms and legs and a tiny smiling face. At last, people to populate Lego houses and cities.

1978: The last of Lego’s major patents expires. Hellooooo, Mega Bloks.

1979: Christiansen’s grandson, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, takes over the company and introduces play themes such as Lego Space.

1980: According to a survey, 70 percent of all Western European families with kids younger than 14 have Lego bricks in their homes. Most likely scattered all over the floor.

1989: Seymour Papert of MIT, a longtime proponent of kids using computers to learn, is named Lego Professor of Learning Research. The Lego Mindstorms line of robotic toys is named after his book.

1996: The online world of www.lego.com is launched. Legoland Windsor amusement park opens in England. It includes a model of St. Paul’s Cathedral made from Legos.

1999: The first “Star Wars” Lego sets are released, ending the era of smelly model glue and changing Lego history. Character sets from “Harry Potter” to “Indiana Jones” to “SpongeBob SquarePants” will follow. Legoland California amusement park opens in Carlsbad, Calif. It includes a model of Mount Rushmore made from Legos.

2001: The Bionicles line of heavily armored, half-robotic warriors is released. They are made without a single traditional brick. Computer games, comic books and movies will follow

2002: The music video for the White Stripes hit “Fell in Love With a Girl” re-creates the band as animated Legos. Legoland Deutschland amusement park opens in Germany. It includes a model of the Reichstag building made from Legos.

2003: Minifigures change from yellow to realistic skin tones. Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and 21 other NBA players become Lego minifigures. The world’s biggest Lego Christmas trees — 27 feet high, 250,000 Duplos — are built in Germany and California. The star on top takes 12,000 yellow Legos.

2004: Photos of two astronaut minifigures land on Mars aboard the NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

2007: The first Lego Education Center in the U.S. opens in Southlake, Texas, offering courses in building and robotics for ages 3 to 12.

2008: Google celebrates Lego’s 50th anniversary by illustrating its logo in Legos. (Google’s founders are huge Lego fans. Google’s New York office is filled with Legos as artwork and Legos for play.) The world’s tallest Lego tower is built in England, 96 feet high, 500,000 pieces. A model of the Taj Mahal, with 5,922 pieces, becomes the biggest Lego set ever sold, surpassing the Star Wars Millennium Falcon, the previous record holder, with 5,195 pieces.

Sources: Lego, The New York Times, the NBA, thebricktestament.com

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