John Topley’s Weblog

Happy Birthday LEGO!

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the humble LEGO brick. Apparently there are 2,400 different LEGO brick shapes and did you know that LEGO are the world’s largest manufacturer of tyres? LEGO was definitely one of my favourite toys as a child, particularly LEGO Technic. Who can forget playing with LEGO whilst kneeling down on the carpet wearing shorts, then standing up to find the imprints of eight studs in your kneecap where you’d knelt on a brick? At this point I feel obliged to point out to any American readers that the plural of LEGO is LEGO or LEGO bricks, not LEGOs! With that out of the way, let me share some of my memories of LEGO.

I loved getting LEGO sets for Christmas or birthdays. I think the first Technic set I owned was the 948 Go Kart, probably in 1979 or 1980. This was a cool set because it had a one cylinder piston engine at the back, the piston moving up and down as you pushed the go kart along! It also had working steering. No doubt this is tame stuff for today’s children who are used to Xbox 360s or PS3s, but at the time it was enough to spark my imagination and fuel my curiosity for how things work. I’m not sure the same can be said of console games where you’re led down a set path, however elaborate or flashy.

I remember being extremely envious of one of my friends when I was growing up because his elder brother had the 8860 Car Chassis. This set had a huge number of pieces and included amazing real world features such as a four cylinder engine mated to a two speed gearbox, adjustable seats and working rear suspension. My friend told me that this set was too complicated for people our age to be able to build, so it was with great pride that I proved him wrong when I eventually got the set for myself! This set was the first time I’d come across a differential gear and I can recall having a conversion with my Grandad—who was an engineer—about why it was needed.

A picture of the LEGO Technic 8860 Car Chassis set

At some point I got the new LEGO Technic excavator (set 8851) complete with pneumatics. This led me to retrofit height-adjustable pneumatic rear suspension to my Car Chassis, just like on a Citroën. A great thing about LEGO was that the build instructions leaflet always included instructions for at least one alternative model. In the case of the Car Chassis set this was an awesome drag bike. For the Go Kart it was a vulcanizer, although I had no idea what one of those was and I’m still not entirely sure.

As well as my numerous Technic sets, I also really liked the Space sets. To my eternal regret I missed out on owning the mega 928 Galaxy Explorer. My Dad took me to a toy shop and was going to buy it for me, when stupidly I made the impulse decision that I’d rather have a Corgi model of a dust cart instead! I wouldn’t have been as upset about my bad choice if I’d have known that decades later there’d be this thing called eBay where you could get all this stuff (apparently!)

Another thing I remember about LEGO was that you could get some nice little accessory sets, such as a set containing only cogs, gears and axles or sets that enabled you to motorise or add lighting to your creations. Some of the modern sets are incredibly sophisticated with fibre optics and programmable robotics. Somehow the blockiness of models made with LEGO didn’t seem to matter. I guess my childhood imagination must have smoothed things out. Probably the greatest thing about LEGO is that if you can imagine it then you can build it, provided you have the right bricks of course! I’m ashamed to admit for the very first time that I once stole a red 4 x 4 base plate whilst at a friend’s house because I needed it to complete a particular model I was making. Sorry Lisa!

Eventually I reached that age most of us reach where I had to give up playing with LEGO. I still enjoy building things, although now I make things out of blocks of software rather than blocks of ABS plastic. Unfortunately getting bits of software to play well is still nowhere near as easy as playing with LEGO was. In a feat of backwards compatibility that would make any software company envious, LEGO bricks from today still fit bricks made in 1958. So here’s to the next fifty years of LEGO!


There are 4 comments on this post. Comments are closed.

  • avatar Ian Nelson
    28 January 2008 at 20:21

    Oh, I loved the 8860 Car Chassis! Christmas could not come soon enough that year. I still have it up in the loft, just waiting for the day that Benjamin is old enough to appreciate it...

  • avatar John Topley
    28 January 2008 at 20:24

    You've still got it? No way! You must let Benjamin build it on his own though without too much help from his father! ;-)

  • avatar John Conners
    28 January 2008 at 23:50

    I too had that exact car chassis! I can see a pattern emerging...

    I also had a helicopter if I remember correctly and the gearing was really cool!

    Such a shame that too many kids play computer games instead of learning to build things - the sense of achievement I got building a car was matched only by the amount I learned about mechanics while doing it. Pressing a bunch of buttons to drive a car around a track or move a virtual character around a virtual world hardly comes close!

  • avatar David Billings
    28 April 2008 at 19:44

    I worked my butt off all summer when I was 13 to save to buy the 8860, my first and only Technics. I gave it away to a friend before I moved overseas, and I wish I hadn't because now I have kids. Lego really needs to put that one back in production, it was fantastic. I don't give a hoot about their $499 Millennium Falcon that has almost no moving parts, and the latest Mindstorms don't have a whole lot of parts that aren't computer things.

Who can forget playing with LEGO whilst kneeling down on the carpet wearing shorts, then standing up to find the imprints of eight studs in your kneecap where you’d knelt on a brick?


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