Building a History: The LEGO Group

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Building a History: The LEGO Group by Sarah Herman is the latest in a growing number of LEGO-related books vying for space on your bookshelf.

It’s a 300 page hardback that’s published by Pen and Sword who are best known as a publisher of military history books. The author is a British LEGO lover currently living in Vancouver who has written books on a variety of subjects.

As its title suggests, it charts the history of the Christensen family, the LEGO Company and LEGO products, starting with the birth of Ole Kirk Christensen in 1891, and ending in about 2010. Although it is generously illustrated, it is not a picture book, and it takes a good few hours to read it all.

Five of its 6 chapters deal with different time periods that are bounded by significant events in the company’s history:

  • Chapter 1: 1890-1953 - establishing the company, building wooden toys, dabbling in plastic injection moulding
  • Chapter 2: 1954-1977 – creating and building upon the LEGO ‘system’, global expansion
  • Chapter 3: 1978-1988 – birth of the minifig and the expansion of play themes: the ‘golden age’, apparently.
  • Chapter 4: 1989-1999 – further expansion and diversification
  • Chapter 5: 2000-2010 – The start of licensing, financial problems, getting the company back on track

Chapter 6 covers ‘outside the box’: DesignbyME, video games, the internet, branded products (books, clothes, household items etc.), fan conventions and MOCs.

Chapters one and two, covering the early history, are an excellent read and very well researched. Unlike many books on the subject, it covers the original invention and patenting of the brick by British designer Hilary Page, and how LEGO copied this to produce their own, slightly modified, version (Page didn’t have a patent protecting his design in Denmark).

Things go slightly downhill in chapters three to five, I guess possibly because now the system and company are well established, most of what Sarah has to write about is the products it’s making and unfortunately much of it reads as if she’s describing what’s in the catalogues, one theme at a time. I’m not sure what you’d make of it if you were unfamiliar with LEGO and you read this book as your first introduction to it: I’d imagine textual descriptions of, for example, Alpha Team, Mission Deep Sea and Mission Deep Freeze would be fairly meaningless. However, if you have seen them before, perhaps at Brickset or in a catalogue, the text helps you recall them and puts the theme in context. There are photos of examples of some themes, but by no means all.

Unfortunately there is no insight into the background to the themes, and no input from LEGO about how they came about, so it is a bit of a dry read. Several pertinent facts (which, unsurprisingly, are not obvious from looking at catalogues) have been missed, for example the similarities between Dino Attack and Dino 2010 are acknowledged but the fact that the violent theme was sold in the USA (where kids like violence, I assume!) and the latter, where the dinos are captured but not killed, in the rest of the world, has been overlooked.

As I said earlier, the book contains a generous number of photographs, both colour and monochrome. They have been contributed by a number of people, including some well-known AFOLs, such as our very own bluemoose (Ian Grieg). This has led to inconsistent quality and, unfortunately, many of them are very poor, particularly those of the product itself (Ian’s are a notable exception, I hasten to add!). A little extra care in photographing to ensure a decent depth of field, or against a neutral background rather than a dark wooden table with a cloth draped in the background would have gone a long way to improve things.

One thing that became apparent towards the end of the book is that it’s been a long time in production. It was written in 2010 so many of the significant events since then (collapse of Universe and DesignByME, introduction of Friends etc.) are not mentioned, and the reader could be left thinking, for example, that Universe was a great success for the company and that LEGO make nothing targeting girls. I guess that’s a general problem with all printed reference books, not just this one: they go out of date almost as soon as, or even before, they are published. It was perhaps a shame, though, that Sarah didn’t update the relevant parts of it given it has been so long in gestation, to minimise this.

A couple of other minor points: Although Brickset is mentioned as source of information for the book, its virtues are not extolled in the section covering websites. Also, the fact that LEGO now recognises adult fans as a market worth serving with specific products is not really mentioned, and personally I think that it a very significant milestone in the company’s development.

In conclusion then, despite the shortcomings, I did enjoy reading the book, particularly about the early years of which I didn’t know so much about.

If you’re fresh out of your ‘dark ages’ you will find that it’s a well written account that will get you up to speed with the history of the company and its products. If you’ve been around the AFOL scene for a while, you will probably know much of it already but nevertheless it is still an enjoyable read, and it deserves a place on your LEGO bookshelf (if there’s still room…)

I notice that Sarah has another book in the pipeline: A Million Little Bricks: The Unofficial Illustrated History of the Lego Phenomenon due out in September. It may well address the issue of there being insufficient photos to illustrate every theme in this book, but I hope and pray that the photograph quality issues are addressed.

You can obtain this book from Amazon:

11 comments on this article

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By in United Kingdom,

I had a little read of this book in a bookshop the other day (terrible I know) and found it quite interesting, I will probably fork out to get it at some point. I am sure I can find a book voucher somewhere to use. Is Sarah an AFOL or not? I can only imagine that an AFOL would write a more engaging read for other Lego fans.

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By in United Kingdom,

She's a professional author and describes herself as a 'LEGO Lover' and on balance I'd say she probably is. So, I suspect she's done a better job than many an AFOL would.

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By in Australia,

Actually Huw, Dino Attack was sold in the United States, Australia, Japan and most of the other countries in the world. They featured mutant vicious dinosaurs that were terrorizing the city. Dino 2010 features mutant dinosaurs who had escaped/roamed the jungle for scientist's to capture and experiment with and were sold only in Europe.

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By in United States,

So it's not just kids in the USA who love violence! ;-)

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By in United Kingdom,

I have to agree with Huw. I bought my copy ahead of a long aeroplane flight, really looking forward to a good read about my hobby. But my eyes glazed over two chapters in. It reads like a dry description of every play theme from the past. Very little context, e.g. what was happening in the world in general and the craze-prone toy world in particular. Very few quotes from Lego insiders, although the designer of the minifig was interviewed. And very little on the business decisions which shaped products, good and bad. TLG's near-death experience of 2004 is dealt with in a few paragraphs, basically 'it was really bad then the new CEO came along and made it all better'. It reads like a good summary on play themes, if anyone wants that, but I think there's a much more interesting book on Lego's history waiting to be written.

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By in United States,

Regarding Dino Attack VS Dino 2010, as a kid, I lived shooting the dinos with the missile blasters under the T-1 Typhoon, so ... I don't know, maybe kids like things that fire and explode better. :D But overall, yeah I want to read this book sometime.

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By in United States,

Thanks for this review! These make me aware the books are out there to read; I don't always keep up on new releases as much as I'd like to so I really do appreciate these posts. I haven't seen the book or the photographs inside it YET and the flaws you pointed out do seem like very basic photography 101 tips, but it was only a few years ago that you were asking for photo pointers here from the general public on basic macro shots yourself Huw so a whole paragraph on how bad other peoples photos are is kind of harshin' the groove a little.

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By in United Kingdom,

^ I guess I have been spoiled by the quality of photos in the likes of the DK books, so one's expectation is that all LEGO books should be the same.

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By in Australia,

No problem, that's OK :)

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By in United States,

"[in] the USA (where kids like violence, I assume!)"

That statement is the truest thing ever. I can't talk about games without some guy mentioning Call of Duty or some other blood fest. Not to mention fights at my old school all the time...

So it talks about the earliest parts of the company? I always enjoy reading about early development and the beginning and what not.

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