The Early History of LEGO

iStock
iStock

Simple, block-shaped toys have been around for hundreds of years, but it took a 20th-century Danish genius named Ole Kirk Christiansen to invent the interlocking pieces we know today as LEGO bricks. It all started in 1932 in the village of Billund, long before LEGO had achieved world domination as a brand.

A master joiner and carpenter, Christiansen opened a humble woodworking shop with his son Godtfred, just 12 years old at the time. They manufactured stepladders, ironing boards and later expanded to make wooden toys, and in 1934 dubbed their business LEGO, a contraction of the Danish "leg godt" ("play well").

And play well they did. The company expanded from only six employees in 1934 to forty in 1942. LEGO was also fairly progressive, and became an early adopter of new technologies and materials. In fact, the group became the first Danish company to own a plastic injection-molding machine. When the Christiansens came across prototypes of a British toy called "Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Bricks" in 1947, they adopted the idea and started manufacturing their own version two years later. The bricks had pegs on top and hollow bottoms, allowing children to lock the bricks together and create elaborate structures never possible with the simple wooden blocks of yesteryear.

Dubbing them the (decidedly un-catchy) "Automatic Binding Bricks," they were the forerunner to today's LEGO brick. But they hadn't quite got the formula right yet. The bricks lacked the tubes found inside modern LEGOs which greatly improve stability. Further, it seemed the world wasn't ready for plastic toys just yet; sales of plastic LEGO toys in the early 50s were mediocre at best.

In 1958, the LEGO brick finally came into its own. And while founder Ole Kirk Christiansen never lived to see his company's heyday, his son Godtfred Christiansen pioneered and patented the now-standard LEGO stud-and-tube configuration, and introduced roof bricks to the "LEGO System of Play," which was comprised of 28 sets and 8 vehicles.

After a devastating warehouse fire in 1960, the company decided to ditch production of wooden toys altogether and focus instead on plastics. LEGO hasn't changed the design of their brick since then, which means today's sets are compatible with sets from 1958 onward.

More LEGO fun: In 1961, the LEGO wheel was invented. At first blush that may not sound as momentous as humanity's initial development of the wheel (approximately 5,000 BCE), but considering that today LEGO turns out more than 300 million tiny wheels per year, it actually makes them the most prolific wheel manufacturer in the world. Along with 3000 other types of pieces, they're packaged into 37,000 LEGO sets per hour. And according to LEGO, the process they use to mold their plastic is so accurate that a mere 18 out of every million bricks fails to meet quality standards.

This article was written by Ransom Riggs and excerpted from the Mental Floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything.

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.