Printer Friendly

The toy that built a town.

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 visitors.

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 brick.

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 himself.

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 pass.

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" cannonball.

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 start.
COPYRIGHT 1984 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Oct 1, 1984
Previous Article:The lady who thought she was crazy.
Next Article:Will women elect the president?

Related Articles
Tiny trains in Sacramento's Railroad Museum.
Toys to move in to former Post Office.
BUSINESS LIFE:COMMERCIAL PROPERTY:A new toy shop opens its doors.
State says neigh to repair of deteriorating horse mascot.
Factory could be used for toy-making.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters