The day the LEGO brick was born – January 28, 1958 [Feature]

The 28th of January marks the birthday of LEGO — the day when various designs of the brick were submitted to the Patent and Trademark office, and celebrated today as International LEGO Day. The story of the LEGO brick has been told many a time, often glossed over and missing the exact point of discovery. It was only on July 8th, 2020 on Godtfred Kirk Christiansen’s birthday that we finally got some insight into how it all came together.  An article was written by Mads Klougart Jakobsen, LEGO’s Manager, Internal Communications, which was only circulated internally for LEGO employees, but was eventually shared with the public LEGO fan community.

We reproduce in verbatim the story that was circulated:

“For decades we have been unable to give a precise answer to the question of how the LEGO brick was developed, and who was the mastermind behind the design. We have been convinced that it was a lengthy development process carried out by a team of LEGO employees in the mid to late 1950s. Thanks to newly-discovered material, we have found out that Godtfred actually played a pivotal role in developing the LEGO brick that people all over the world love today,” explains Signe Wiese, Corporate Historian from LEGO Idea House.

Here is the never-before-told story of the development of the iconic LEGO brick:

It’s January 23, 1958. Three men are sitting in a LEGO office in Billund. The three men are Godtfred Kirk, his brother Karl Georg (presumably) and Axel Thomsen, head of LEGO sales office in Germany.

The latter explains that he’s getting complaints from his customers in Germany about the fact that models built with the company’s plastic building bricks are lacking stability and clutch power.

The problem is discussed at length, and several ideas and solutions are put forward. At some point, Godtfred finds a piece of paper with circles on, and starts to sketch the different ideas for a new brick design. That same day, Godtfred hands the sketch to Ove Nielsen, then head of the LEGO moulding shop. He is instructed to make a sample of the new brick design with two inner clutch tubes.

One of the first sketches of the design with two inner clutch tubes.

The following day, Godtfred brings his sketches and samples to the office of patent agency Hofman-Bang & Boutard in Copenhagen for them to get started on the work of applying for a patent. However, on his way home to Billund, he ponders over the idea of creating a new design for a brick with three inner clutch tubes instead of two. When he reaches Billund, he has come to the conclusion that three tubes will work better than two, because it will provide even better interlocking action.

He has Ove Nielsen create a new brick sample by cutting up and glueing together existing elements. This new three-tube design is then sent to the patent office with express courier. Only a few days later, on January 28, 1958 at precisely 1.58 pm, the LEGO Group files the application for a patent for a new type of building system. A system in which two or several interlocking plastic building elements can be put together in a great number of mutually different positions – or as it is more widely referred to: The patent of the LEGO brick.

“We’re now able to conclude that it took no more than five days to develop and patent the design of the LEGO brick, and we can also conclude that the mastermind behind this everlasting design was none other than Godtfred himself. I can’t find a more fitting way to celebrate his 100th birthday,” smiles Signe.

Placing faces to the names

A few names surfaced in the storyline above that probably deserve recognition besides the father of the brick, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen. Karl Georg Christiansen, Axel Thomsen, and Ove Nielsen are also deservingly part of the history of the brick, as they had key supporting roles in bringing the brick to life according to the narrative shared by LEGO.

Godtfred Kirk Christiansen (8 July 1920 – 13 July 1995). Photo credit: LEGO

The Christiansen brothers (left to right): Gerhardt, Johannes, Godtfred, and Karl Georg. Photo credit: Image scanned from the collection of Matthew Hocker

Ove is a key individual during the first setup when mold production began in 1953 and personally oversaw the first machines that arrived in Billund.

Mold manufacturing, Billund, 1957. On the far right, manager Ove Nielsen. Photo Credit: LEGO

Axel led the opening of the first overseas LEGO sales office (LEGO Spielwaren GmbH) in Germany. Axel is known to be the man who provided constant feedback from the field on the lack of clutch from customers. The photograph below is made for the celebration of the new German office that Axel led successfully over the years.

12 Jan 1956 – Celebrating the founding of Lego Spielwaren, GmbH. Grete Thomsen (second from left), Mr. Bojesen (Lego counsel), Ole, Godtfred and Axel Thomsen (right). Photo Credit: LEGO

1.58 pm and the LEGO Patent

The article was very precise in the time of “the founding” of the LEGO Brick – 1:58 PM. But how did LEGO get the time so accurate, down to the minute?

We scoured in search of the LEGO patent, and the one that turns up more often — and that has been repurposed in many other ways, on prints and posters — is the cool, retro-looking isometric design presented in English and archived by Google Patents. If the imagery seems familiar, that’s because it’s more widely circulated than the original patent. Note the twelve different illustrations drawn in detail as part of the patent submission. They feature different systems of connection on the underside of the brick.

US LEGO Patent (Patent No US3005282A)

This wasn’t the first patent filed by the founding fathers of LEGO, but is instead the U.S filing of the LEGO brick patent, which explains the primary language used: English. The date of the filing does not match up with the birth-date of LEGO. Nevertheless, we don’t disagree on its technical beauty — it makes great material for “marketing” purposes with more detailed drawings.

The original LEGO patent is in Danish.  You can score a reprinted version of this in the 50 Years of the LEGO Brick book.

A copy of the initial Danish patent also sits within the halls of LEGO’s private museum, the Idea House.

Image credit : Francesco Spreafico

We recreated and translated the Danish patent to English so you can get a bit more clarity on how the exact timing was recorded: 13.58 translating to 1:58 PM. The submission also mentions three drawings that were attached.

Fees of 24 Danish Krone (DKK) would be less than $4 USD in direct conversion, but adjusted for inflation it is closer to more than $40 USD today. In comparison, submitting a new patent today would be in excess of 10 times that amount, over $400 USD.

We’ve not exactly seen the 3 pages that follow but from what we speculate, two pages have been released to date. If you notice below, we have Fig.3 to Fig.14. Would it be fair to assume that Fig.1 and Fig.2 would be on page 1 of the patent submission? Has anyone out there seen the missing original patent page?

A closer look at the underside of the molded bricks shows different approaches that provide LEGO “clutch” power, as if they are magically glued together. Some of these designs were featured in the submitted patents.

Jan Beyer, Community Integration Manager for adult fans of LEGO, correctly points out that the invention of the LEGO brick isn’t just about the specific brick. He adds that the patent covers a building system or a building method in which two or several interlocking plastic building elements “…could be put together in a great number of mutually different positions..” which is a direct quote from the patent application.

It will be 63 great years with LEGO in our lives in 2021. HAPPY BIRTHDAY and many more to come!

5 comments on “The day the LEGO brick was born – January 28, 1958 [Feature]

  1. Edwinder Post author

    @JPL, thank you! Yes, I mistakenly listed the period of which he served at the LEGO Company. It’s now been updated.

  2. Torsten Martinsen

    There are a couple of errors in the translation of the Danish patent: “also” should be removed, there is no such word in the original. Also, “or in accordance” should of course be “are in accordance”.
    And “ans. pr. 1958” means “claim as of 1958”.

  3. Name

    Regarding “ans. pr. 1958”.

    “ans.” is short for “ansøgt” (applied) and the sentence states the date of when the patent was applied for/submitted to the patent office (not when it was granted).

    I would therefore suggest a translation along these lines: “Application date, 1958”.

  4. Edwinder Post author

    @Torsten Martinsen and @Name, thank you both for your feedback and translation details. I’ve updated the document to reflect them. Very much appreciated indeed!

    Any idea what does .nr. 289 represent?

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