The toy that built a town Essay

The Jutland moors town of Billund, Denmark, was once described as a
“God-forsaken railway stopping point where nothing could possibly
survive.” Today Billund is the home of 4,850 people. All are
surviving nicely. But the railroad no longer stops here. Instead,
Billund’s expanding airport is the “stopping point” for
jets that bring in some 600,000 of the town’s 850,000 yearly

So what’s the big attraction? Basically it is a toy measuring
exactly 1 1/4 X 5/8 inches, known the world over as the LEGO building

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If you are not familiar with the unique stud-and-tube coupling
system of a LEGO brick, ask almost any child. Researchers have found
that 50 million children spend 4 billion hours every year exercising
their creative genes with this educational and entertaining toy.

I saw the bricks being made in a factory the size of 14 football
fields. In a park of the same size, I saw what LEGO’s model
artists have constructed with them. And I still can’t believe it.

Neither, perhaps would Ole Kirk Christiansen, the man who made it
all possible.

Born in poverty in Filshov, just northwest of Billund, in 1891, Ole
devoted his life not only to proving that something could survive in
Billund, but that it could grow and prosper. The future of Billund,
however, was still far from his mind when, at the age of six, he was
sent out on the moors to tend sheep. There he whiled away the long,
lonesome hours carving sticks into recognizable shapes with his pocket
knife. This urge to fashion things of wood continuing to grow as he
grew; he was soon apprenticed to his older brother, from whom he learned
carpentry and joinery.

At age 25 Ole bought the Billund Woodworking and Carpentry Shop. He
built houses in the summer season, wardrobes and chests of drawers
during the winter months. The Great Depression of the ’30s was
only the first of many reversals. (His place of business burned to the
ground on three occasions.) Houses and even wardrobes and chests were
now luxury items that none could afford. Ole switched production to the
necessities–ironing boards, milking stools, stepladders. Not one to
waste scrap materials, he began making miniature versions of the
products. And with four young sons in the family, this soon led to the
production of wooden toys, for which he found a demand.

Small as his toy company was, Ole decided it deserved a name. He
offered a bottle of his homemade wine to the one who could come up with
a name that would be appropriate. Today, the results of that contest
might be suspect. For Ole decided he had won, and so drank the wine

The name he choose, LEGO, was a combination of the Danish words Leg
Godt, “play well.” Only later was it discovered that in Latin
the words mean “I put together; I assemble.”

The assembling might have stopped, and the remarkable growth of the
company as well, had not 12-year-old Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, one of
the four sons, caught his father’s enthusiasm for making “toys
that wouldn’t break” and joined the seven-man work force. It
was Godtfred who patented this plastic brick in 1958 and who, amid much
skepticism, established LEGOLAND in 1968. More than 12 million visitors
have come to the town of Billund since then, making it anything but a
Godforsaken railway stopping point.

Before entering the gates of the fabulous miniworld of LEGOLAND
(its well-merited sobriquet is “The Disneyland of Europe”), I
took a look at the LEGO factory. There are no rumbling overhead cranes,
no thundering presses.

Plastic bits, bright yellow, red, blue and black and white, are
dumped from bins into what look like giant pressure cookers, where they
are converted into a warm plastic gruel, then conveyed to injection
modling machines that spit out LEGO bricks or component parts at the
rate of 1 1/2 million per hour. Everything from animals, trees and road
signs to swords, helmets, propellers, lovable little figures–and of
course tires, lots of tires. In 1983, LEGO Systems turned out
175,905,700 of them, making it the world’s largest tire
manufacturer. Each year 76,680,000 mini figures have their faces
painted on by the decoration department. Not surprisingly, all the faces
are smiling. As for the bricks, I was told six eight-stud pieces can be
combined in 102,981,500 different ways. Believe it or not!

Danish ladies deftly add parts to the cellophane packets that
travel along the line. Each packet is weighed for exact count, and
instructions in the correct language are inserted. Then each is labeled
for the proper age group to be challenged by a castle, airplane, ship,
bridge, house, desk with swivel chair (undoubtedly for 50-year-old
executives), crane, train, animal or whatever.

LEGO’s strict safety standards make correct age identification
a high priority. If a child’s age is not below the minimum printed
on the product pack, parents can rest assured that the contents are safe
for play. All parts are subjected to brutal punishment at the
factory–the drop test, the torsion test, the test for tensile strength,
the bite test and tests for swallowability, sharp points, sharp edges
and flammability.

Ninety-seven percent of the factory’s output is exported. But
no problem. Most visitors come to this thriving hamlet to see the 30
million LEGO building bricks that have never left home. These are the
bricks assembled into model masterpieces of the world’s most famous
structures and recognizable scenes that comprise LEGOLAND.

“When Godtfred came up with this idea of a wonderland
‘where fantasy would have no limits,’ everybody thought to
build such a thing was crazy,” says LEGO’s peter
Ambeck-Madsen, as we are swept along in the flood of school children
bursting through the gates. (Billund schools are closed today, the
opening day of the park.) But because the thousands of guests going
through the factory were so deeply impressed by the unique LEGO models,
built for exhibit all over the world, he clung to his dream.

That dream, today, is the second-largest attraction in Denmark,
after copenhagen’s famous Tivoli Gardens. Although it would cover
14 football fields, LEGO people thing it’s still too small. They
would like to double its size.

The only problem here is which tiny “country” to visit
first! Here, built to scale in colorful LEGO bricks, is a Swedish
village. Tiny canal locks really operate, lowering or raising LEGO brick
ships from one water level to another. Farther on is the old Danish town of Ribe, complete with cathedral.

“Listen!” someone whispers. And sure enough, sacred
music is wafting out from this perfectly detailed knee-high model.

Denmark is well represented, of course. Nearly 900,000 bricks and
40,000 windows went into the model of the royal Danish residence,
Amalienborg. And there is also an accurate copy of Grasten Castle,
Queen Ingrid’s summer residence. Nearby is “Lilleby”
(the small town) and its typical Danish village church, creamery,
co-operative store and half-timbered houses. I see the royal hunting
lodge “Eremitagen,” from Deer Park outside Copenhagen,
surrounded by mounted huntsmen in bright red coats. Then the dune
village of Klitby and its wee fishermen on the quay, the
half-cigarette-sized lighthouses and the miniature fishing boats on the
“sea” behind the white dunes.

From the German town of Goslar, with its famous market church and
the two different towers, it’s only a few paces to the miniature
buildings along the waterfront that comprise a scene from Reine. This
village on Lofoten in the northern part of Norway serves as an example
of the devotion LEGO model designers and craftsmen pay to accuracy. A
Norwegian visitor looking at the village once exclaimed, “But I
live there! And there is the school where i teach!”

A hop, skip and a jump, and I’m in Holland. The fans on the
windmills are the only glued bricks in the entire complex. In
Amsterdam, LEGO brick barges sail along the canals. A model train stops
automatically on its tracks while a draw-bridge is raised for a ship to

In the Swedish area, Dalsland, the amazing aqueduct of Haverud
actually carries a canal over a river. Farther along are the
characteristic buildings of Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy
rising up from a Tyrolean landscape.

The U.S. is represented here, as well. A scale model of the
spacecraft Columbia, constructed of one million LEGO bricks, is only the
beginning. From the streets of LEGOREDO, a full-scale town of the old
American West, I get a full view of the sculptor Bjorn Richter’s
masterpiece, The Big Bison-hunt, that sweeps across the face of the
man-made mountain. In this imaginative relief, 2 1/2 million LEGO
bricks have turned the mountain into a melee of racing buffalo with
Indians in hot pursuit.

Before one has completely recovered from the effect of this amazing
work, there is the miniature Mount Rushmore, towering over the entire
scene. Using 1 1/2 million building bricks, the same inspired sculptor
has perfectly profiled, to scale, the four famous American presidents.
Fittingly, it was Gutzon Borglum, a sculptor of Danish descent, who
executed the original project.

The park is open from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., long enough for
visitors to sample many of the variety of sights and activities, as well
as the educational opportunities. One of those opportunities is
qualifying for a “driver’s license.”

The popular Traffic School welcomes children between the ages of 8
and 14. Driving small electric cars, the youngsters encounter
scaled-down real-life highway situations: one-way streets, railway
crossings, pedestrian crossings, stoplights and traffic. Each car has
an identifying flag so that from his tower the instructor can call out a
mistake in the driver’s own language. Young students from all over
Europe come here to practice the theory of highway safety.

Unless one is on a junk-food diet, eating in the park is no
problem. The LEGO prople proudly display their citations for limiting
sweets to ice cream only. Nor are there pinball machines or games to
believe the young people of their allowances.

The only problem at LEGOLAND is what to see first: The antique doll
and doll-house collection (approximately 400 dolls dating from 1580)?
The antique mechanical toys for boys? The LEGO educational exhibits for
adults as well as children? Or the incredible Titania’s Palace? I
chose the palace.

The world’s largest and most expensive miniature structure of
its kind, it was created ostensibly for Titania, the queen of fairies,
her consort, Prince Oberon and their seven children, as their earthly
residence. The English painter Sir Nevile Wilkinson and his staff of
dedicated artists spent 15 years making the miniature models and
collecting others from all over the world. It was finished in 1922.
The mahogany palace was bought by the Christiansens for LEGOLAND in 1978
at a price of 1.6 million Danish kroner. Its 18 rooms and halls contain
thousands of tiny copies of the finest furniture, paintings, sculpture
and antiques, all on a scale of 1 to 12.

I won’t try to describe the exquisite detail of Louis
Philippe’s writing table. Queen Titania’s throne. The wee
chapel organ, upon which it is possible to play. The complete inch-long
New Testament. The world’s smallest rosary. The glass-fronted
bookcase and its 54 minuscule windows and 91 tiny books, all legible.
The miniature edition of the New York Times lying on a table. The
mother-of-pearl floor of Titania’s bedroom, its ceiling of carved
wood. the playable cello in Oberon’s study; the smokable
match-size pipes. I can describe the smallest item in this amazing
collection of miniature masterpieces. The queen’s gold ring–it is
no larger than the lower case “o” on my typewriter.

In another area of LEGOLAND children can let their imaginations run
wild among tables filled with unlimited supplies of LEGO bricks. I try
my skill at creating something recognizable within a ten-minute time
limit, but these things are for kids, anyway. My creation might
charitably be called a raft that had survived Niagara Falls.

Norman Mailer, the writer, did somewhat better 20 years ago when he
coupled 15,000 LEGO building bricks into his conception of “the
city of the future.”

But model manager Kirsten Morkenborg Rasmussen and her staff of
meticulous artists and designers have far outdone both Mailer and me.

There is the United States Capitol in 900,000 LEGO bricks. The
Statue of Liberty (no face-lift necessary on the old girl here). The
Coast Guard ship U.S.S. Gallatin, bound for the coast Guard Academy at
New London, connecticut. Science fiction characters (commissioned for a
French exhibit). The official seal of the city of Enfield, Connecticut
(U.S. LEGO headquarters). Historic landmarks, to be used in road
shows, window displays and advertising. Garfield, the most famous of
all fat cats. The fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, all brought
colorfully to life in LEGO bricks. “Star Wars” projects are
also in the making.

“We are continually developing,” says Peter.

Ideally, LEGO planners would have all the world beat a path to
LEGOLAND. But for those who can’t make it, not to worry. LEGOLAND
may be coming to you in road shows with attractions such as familiar
scenes from the circus, all animated, all created, of course, from LEGO
bricks and components. Although my camera was still hot from overuse, I
couldn’t resist snapping shots of the trapeze performers, the
lion-tamer act, the Indian hatchet thrower and the “human”

A LEGO road show won’t be coming to your town? Still all is
not lost. During a four-week period in October and November many
millions of bags of LEGO and Duplo bricks will be handed out by the
6,000 McDonald restaurants to children who buy a “Happy Meal.”

The content of the bags, of course, won’t be enough to create
a futuristic city, a capitol building or a Taj Mahal, but it’s a


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