Legos were created by a Danish carpenter in the 1930s. The name comes from the combination of the Danish words for “play well,” leg godt.
It wasn’t until 1978, however, that the boxes included humanity. That year the company’s chief designer, Jens Nygaard Knudsen, introduced the Lego minifigure.
Early minifigures included a police officer, a firefighter, a doctor, a gas station attendant, a knight and an astronaut. The line proved so popular that it grew over the years to include 8,000 characters, among them figures from the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises. Lego-loving children who grow into Lego-loving adults have been known to place bride-and-groom minifigures atop wedding cakes.
As of today, there are around 7.8 billion humans on the planet. It took the Homo sapiens 200,000 years to reach this number. As Mr. Knudsen’s Washington Post obituary notes, his creation took a little over forty years to catch up.
It was Jack Odell’s daughter who gave him the idea: she wanted a toy that could fit into a matchbox. After making her a miniature steamroller, he “realized he had stumbled upon a product that the company he co-owned, struggling Lesney Products, could sell.”
His Wall Street Journal obituary describes what happened next:
Matchbox toys, packaged in realistic “matchboxes,” went on to become wildly popular both in England and the U.S. (Some British reports compared it to the 1790s craze over yo-yos.) While Mr. Odell designed many of the cars, partner Leslie Smith took care of marketing and sales.
His eye for detail and abilities as a die-cutter led to realistic dashboard dials and hoods and trunks that opened…. Clad in a white apron and sporting a close-trimmed mustache, Mr. Odell could be found checking on quality on the factory floor.
Just as the Lego minifigure soon matched its human counterpart, Odell’s creations quickly overtook their larger relations. As he said in 1963: “We produce more Rolls-Royces in a single day than the Rolls-Royce company has made in its entire history.”
Today there are over 3 billion Matchbox cars – more than twice the number of actual automobiles.