Yesterday at 08.56 EDT (12.56 GMT) The Space Shuttle Endeavour successfully took off on a 16 day mission to the International Space Station. Part of its payload is 13 Lego kits which will be used in experiments in microgravity, and will no doubt keep the astronauts amused. This is just the latest part of a story which tells us far more than just about the toy itself.
Lego was first made in 1949. Although not quite the first toy of it's type it was the first one to be successful on a large commercial scale. From humble origins in 1932 as a one man business making wooden toys, today they sell more than seven lego kits every second and produce over 23 billion pieces each year.
We can learn key things about both technology and sociology from the history of Lego.
On a technological front, there was no such thing as plastic until 1862. For the first 80 years the plastics that we had were heavy and expensive and brittle. As a product it was, for most applications, worse than wood. The particular type of plastic that Lego is made from Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene was not developed (like a lot of things) until WWII. So Lego is a very good marker of what technology existed at the time it was first made.
On the sociological front, the rise of Lego coincides with both the rise in leisure time and our attitude towards children. For the first time in history there were large numbers of children who were not expected to spend nearly all their time either studying or working (depending on which social class they were born into).
There are also lessons in economics. In the early days Lego consisted of just bricks. They were sold on the basis of durability, flexibility and encouraging the child's imagination. Gradually other pieces were added such as specialist roofing parts or wheels, until in 1974 a breakthrough happened: The Lego figure. Soon there was a major change in marketing strategy. Children were no longer expected to have a single set of Lego that could be used flexibly. Kits were produced with lots of specialist pieces designed for one function only. Films like Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter were used as vehicle to boost sales. Imagination was lost and the building of Lego became, like so much else in popular culture, a matter of following what you've been told to by Hollywood. Lets hope the astronauts are more imaginative.
I was fascinated by the series of short radio programmes made by Radio 4 and The British Museum, A History of the World in 100 Objects
. One of the things that fascinated me was how many of the objects were not huge expensive pieces (when they were made) but were everyday objects. It inspired me to think about the objects around my house and what we might learn from them so I've selected a dozen rather than 100.
If you'd like to hear the original radio series, a set of free podcasts can be downloaded from here.