Happy Birthday, Minifigure!

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The LEGO minifigure is 40 today! The first minifigs as we know them first appeared in 1978. That year, 37 sets containing 40 different figures were produced: Town, Space and Trains, plus of course the classic 375 Castle.

To celebrate the occasion LEGO has issued some fun facts and dozens of interesting images of prototypes, patent diagrams and so on. We've reproduced some of them below.


The minifigure patent

LEGO has chosen to celebrate the minifig's birthday on what seems to be a rather arbitrary date: "August 29th has been chosen as this was the original date that the first patent was filed in Denmark, in 1977. The first minifigures were not launched until 1978, hence we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first launched minifigures and not when the first patent was filed." Confused? I certainly am!

Here's a copy of the UK patent, granted in 1982:

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Here's the diagram, cleaned up a bit. A PDF copy of the full US patent can be downloaded, which describes the numbered aspects of the design.

View image at flickr


Fun facts

LEGO has provided the following information, and a cool infographic, about the evolution of the minifigure:

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the LEGO minifigure

In 1978, Disco was dominating the charts, mobile phones were non-existent and the Internet was still more than a decade away. It was also the year the very first LEGO minifigures went into production. Fast forward to today and those inaugural characters have evolved nearly as much as the world around them, offering endless roleplay possibilities.

So, as one of the planet’s tiniest icons celebrates its big 4…0, here are some milestone moments from its very big story.

The evolution of the LEGO minifigure

It all started in 1974 when the LEGO building figure was launched, made mostly of large square LEGO bricks with moveable arms but immoveable legs. This was followed in 1975 by LEGO stage extra figures with solid torsos, immoveable arms and legs, and no printed features. Basically, very different to the LEGO minifigures we know and love today!

Not that we had to wait too long for them to arrive, with 1978 ushering in a new era of LEGO minifigures equipped with moveable limbs and simple facial expressions comprising two solid black eye dots and black painted smile.

Fast forward to 2018 and there are now more than 650 unique faces in the collection, meaning children can have fun roleplaying different characters and personalities – anytime, anywhere.

From 20 to 8,000

To begin with, there were around 20 different LEGO minifigure characters, including a police officer, doctor, firefighter, knight and astronaut. But in the four decades since, the number of minifigures available has risen to more than 8,000.

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To put that into context, if the global population had grown at the same rate, there would now be nearly 144 trillion of us living on Earth!

The perfect height

Take away the hair or any other headpiece and LEGO minifigures are exactly the same height as four LEGO bricks fitted together. This means they fit perfectly into the LEGO System in Play. Oh, and if you stacked them head to toe, you would need 20,750 to reach the height of the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.

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Jack of all trades

Over the years, LEGO minifigures have shown they can turn their hand to pretty much anything. From pirates to paramedics, engineers to elephant keepers, veterinarians to Vikings, there have been thousands of different minifigure characters.

Three LEGO minifigures even blasted into space onboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft in 2011. But one thing has remained consistent throughout: whatever role, character or personality children fancy playing, there’s sure to be a minifigure to match.

Diversity Champion

Did you know the traditional yellow colour of the LEGO minifigure’s head was chosen based on focus group feedback in the early and mid-1970s saying this was preferable to white ones? Since then, minifigures have become increasingly diverse – from the first figures with natural skin tone in 2003 (Lando Calrissian from Star Wars and NBA basketball players) to 2016’s inaugural wheelchair.

LEGO minifigures have also done their bit for unstereotyping gender roles with the likes of female firefighters and ninjas, through to fathers equipped with baby carriers. In fact, the whole point of minifigures is they let children create and be anyone they want – male or female, helmet or hair, freckles or glasses, anything.

And if you’re worried about our robotic friends, don’t be. There have been plenty of C-3POs and R2D2s (not to mention other robots) too.

Hollywood Star

The LEGO minifigure has starred in a number of Hollywood blockbusters, including THE LEGO MOVIE, THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE and THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE. In 2007,

LEGO Group even created 10,000 gold chrome C-3PO minifigures packed in random sets to mark the 30th anniversary of Star Wars.

1978-2018 precision mates

Did you know that eight different moulds are used for the production of every minifigure? Two sets of these moulds are the same in design but reversed to mould the right and left minifigure arms and legs!

The precision that goes into these moulds is exceptional, and because the original moulds are almost identical to the ones we use today, minifigures from 1978 can be mixed and matched with the more modern characters from today!

However, one thing that has changed is the number of elements each mould can produce and the speed scale of this – for example, the minifigure head mould construction has improved from an initial eight elements per 9,8 sec. to 128 elements per 14.7 sec. today!

More than just a figure

LEGO minifigures may be made for fun but there’s a serious side to them as well. By offering an endless choice of roleplay possibilities, they’re designed to let children play inventively, engage with different emotions and tell their own stories.

First and foremost, that means a whole lot of enjoyment. But, crucially, it also allows young people to develop key life skills like emotional intelligence, creativity and communication – skills that, according to new research for the LEGO Play Well Report, parents believe will be vital to helping their children build their own bright future.


Photo gallery

Among the hundreds of images LEGO has released today are these of minifigure prototypes which are particularly fascinating, and actually quite scary!

View image at flickr

Thank goodness we didn't end up with the middle one!

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View image at flickr

Minifigure evolution

Prototypes, the original figures and those of today:

Spacemen:

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Fire personnel:

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Nurse:

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Police:

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There's loads more to come. Check back later!

 

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40 comments on this article

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By in United Kingdom,

Would love to see someone stack 20,000 minifigs on top of one another without any support. My best is 15.
I don't think it's possible though without some kragle.

Edit-those early heads remind me of robots for some reason.

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By in Canada,

Those prototypes look like they were made by hand. They look terrible today, but to think these are 40+ years old... yeesh. It's amazing those designs became something so long-lived, beloved and iconic. Happy birthday, minifigs, you amazing little fellows.

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By in United Kingdom,

Awesome stats! I love a good few numbers occasionally.

"And if you’re worried about our robotic friends, don’t be. There have been plenty of C-3POs and R2D2s (not to mention other robots) too." They neglect to mention no L3, the mistress of robotic diversity (just in case you didn't notice from the subtle hints in the film). Still, there's hope for a custom mould yet!

The new (novelty) elements, particularly for minifigs, are still handmade today from rubbery materials and clay - it's what they use as a base before using the dimensions to build or scan a more accurate mould, usually scaling it down from an enlarged version. Like the designs of the sets themselves it all starts by hand and just getting stuck in!

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By in United States,

So for the Star Wars 40th Anniversary they will be making 20,000 gold chrome C-3POs...right?

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By in United Kingdom,

^ That ship has sailed, unless you're talking about the 'Lego' Star Wars 40th anniversary of 2039. Got to wait a little for that one.

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By in United States,

I am sad the the original lego figures as those found in the Lego family set, were not even mentioned in this history. Even though they are technically not real minifigues, but...

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By in United States,

I wonder whether the prototype red space figures had hammer and sickle logos to counterpoint the white astronauts having stars and stripes? Perhaps so, going by Mark Stafford's comment here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/legoloverman/14399019410/#comment72157645580778543

I'm sure that replacing either with the classic (in so many senses of the word) space logo was a very good decision. (I wonder whether it was Jens Nygaard Knudsen who designed it?)

It's also interesting to see such a stereotypically British helmet on the police prototype figure.

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By in Canada,

I remember when they came out. I was 12 years old at the time, and near the end of my LEGO playing days. But I had a few sets with minifigures.( some of them are probably my brothers) I had switched to technic the year before.
I had more of the earlier type of minifigure. I think the one prototype looks like Homers Simpsons dad.

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By in Singapore,

I think the minifigure design is really iconic, followed by the Playmobil figures. Though both are from my childhood toys, so I'm a bit biased here. :)

On a related note, according to my Brickset database I owned 3338 unique minifigures.

Will need another 600++ unique minifigures to reach just the half-way point!

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By in United States,

Happy birthday LEGO Minifigures!

While it was a good 20 years before I was born, I’ve had the wonderful privilege of getting to build many of the earlier sets with the Minifigures. I will never forget the feeling of building these amazing sets with the amazing Minifigures. I also got to experience the Minifigures when they were 10 years older and all the way up to today’s Minifigures. Each one has brought something unique to the LEGO world.

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By in Australia,

"whatever role, character or personality children fancy playing, there’s sure to be a minifigure to match."

Except a modern soldier or fighter pilot.

LEGO's discrimination against the armed forces continues...

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By in Brazil,

Look at that policeman, now we know the true origin of the Scribble-face Bad Cop.

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By in United States,

I just wish that, to celebrate 40 years of the LEGO minifigure, that they reproduce the white pigtail hair piece

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By in France,

The 1975 style drives me back to my very first builds and hours playing... I do remember quite well that cowboy ranch, red and black, with a watch tower, and those non articulated minifigs which could nonetheless sit on a fence or ride their horse... It was magical. And a few years later came the yellow castle, and it's knights and soldiers. And my childhood changed the day I was offered it. I plunged into Lego. Happy birthday to the Lego minifig, with so many memories of hours and hours of building and playing adventures.

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By in United Kingdom,

Loving the more rounded prototype space helmet.

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By in Netherlands,

Realized that I own that firecar, policecar and ambulancecar.

The other versions of the minifigure look like robots maybe an idea to include them in a anniversary set?

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By in Austria,

The Lego Minifigure is one of the most important milestones within Lego History. Happy Birthday!

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By in United Kingdom,

Some of those prototypes . . . I'm sure you can buy 'em in Wilko's or The Works.

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By in United States,

I'm surprised their timeline doesn't mention the point in the 1990s when the face changed from the standard smile to the variety of custom faces.

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By in Poland,

Happy Birthday!
Is it a reasonable excuse to buy myself some MISB from the 1980's?

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By in Croatia,

@jedibrics82 two years ago was 40th anniversary but 2019 will be 20 years of LEGO star wars

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By in Canada,

What is the current global minifig population? I can only assume Lego will make us aware when minifigs out number humans. for the 40th Instead of 5005358 they should have released some of the prototypes just for fun.

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By in Germany,

Merry BDay minifig!

and to RIP all broken figures

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By in Netherlands,

@PDelaHanty; check the timeline @ the Pirate - 1989.

Happy Birthday minifig!

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By in United States,

I’d love to see the Star Wars prototypes!

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By in United States,

Happy birthday Minifigure! Here's to 40 more years!

Weird that the first Star Wars fig was Padme. You think they'd use someone from set 7101 or Jar Jar given the context of the comment.

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By in United States,

Hey, I share the same birthday as the minifigure!

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By in United States,

Happy birthday to our minifigures. That figure depicting the parts of the figure with numbers is really satisfying for me as a mechanical engineer.

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By in Germany,

So what we sometimes call 'proto-figures' (the ones from 1975-1977) were officially called 'LEGO Stage Extra Figures'?

I wonder if that's just something they made up retrospectively when the 'real' minifigures arrived, but if so, for what purpose?
I definitely never saw any advertisement or catalogue calling them as such...

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By in France,

I was there when it all started with these minifigures! Quite long time ago and I've still been there (since 2009, end of my dark age and beginning of purse's attrition). :-D

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By in United Kingdom,

I'd imagine it was just what they called them internally...

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By in United States,

@PrivateMatrix, I can only hope you're joking. If you think them making soldiers and military figures is a good idea, you're incredibly ignorant.

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By in United States,

@Atuin: I distinctly remember when the modern mini-figures came out in 1978, there were still a few sets available with the original figures with non-moving legs and arms and blank heads. The USA Lego catalogues at the time called those minifigures, and the new modern ones with moving legs and arms and smiley-faces were called "mini-action-figures".

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By in United States,

Happy Birthday Lego Minifigure!

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By in Germany,

@monkyby87: Why do you think @PrivateMatrix could be joking? He is completely correct. I am no big fan of the armed forces, but for LEGO to neglect that aspect in their City line is hypocritical to the max.

Because they have no problem producing millions of soldiers, weapons and fight scenes in the Star Wars sets. And don't tell me that's different because it's fictional. Look at the slaughter scene at the beginning of TFA. If such a scenario fits in LEGO's "family friendly" policy, then why not normal sets with soldiers.

It's not as if City was only peaceful either - just look at all the villains and corresponding police forces. It's a funny coincidence that the Classic figure in the last non-licensed CMF series was the police officer ;-)

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By in Belgium,

so, I recently noticed a change in the minifigure head. there used to be three holes in the stud on top of it, I assumed it was for safety reason in case a child swallowed it (then air could still pass through) but nowadays, while the stud is still hollow (as opposed to the very early ones) the holes have been filled. Anyone knows the reason behind the change ?

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By in United States,

Whoa! I turned 40 yesterday! According to Lego's reasoning, minifigures and I are the exact same age!

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By in United States,

@AustinPowers: It IS different because it's fictional. The armies from themes like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings haven't actively killed people in the real world. Real militaries have. And regardless of when/if you consider military action to be justified, it makes no sense for Lego to depict weapons, uniforms and military vehicles that have been involved in conflicts in living memory—not when their audience is so global. Any such depiction that might be perceived as patriotic or aspirational in one market is liable to be considered insensitive or even traumatic for another.

Even the Lego City Police you mention appear unarmed, to avoid touching on the grim realities of police violence in the modern era. That's a trick that doesn't work with military sets—remove the violence and you've removed their very reason for existing.

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By in Germany,

@yellost:
Actually there were 3 different Minifig head moulds throughout the years:

The first version had a standard solid stud with the word LEGO on it just as on a standard 2x4 brick for example. It was introduced in 1975 when the first figures appeared in what was formerly known as the 'Mini Wheelers' theme (the direct precursor to classic Legoland Town (1978-1990). If you look closely enough you will also notice that the rounding at the 'chin' (in lack of a better word) had a slightly smaller radius than the next version, making it look more cylindrical than spherical. These were only ever available (at least in sets) in yellow, black, red and transparent.

The second version was introduced somewhat at around the end of 1991 with a transition phase up until mid 1992, were both variants could be found in sets. This is the one you mentioned with the 3 holes, having 3 little lines coming from the center at a 120° angle respectively. You are right that such designs are usually applied as a safety measure, that should still allow breathing when the part is swallowed.

The third version (the current one) appeared around 2012, with almost all 2013 heads and later having this stud type that is identical to the one on technic hole bricks for example. I have not yet noticed any other difference between the two.

Seeing it as such it seems bizarre that TLG would invest money on new moulds to remove (!) a safety feature, so it might have had other reasons. A theory I have is based on a few coincidences:

The old stud type with the triple hole is interestingly found on a few other parts, like the 'glass case' (30151) and most noticeably R2-D2's head. R2's head shares the similitary that it is a round object with a print on it, like the minifig head. I have a feeling that this geometry helped in alignment for the printing process (though not sure of cause).

It is also suspicious that when the triple hole was introduced, it was the first year that all minifigure themes shifted away from the standard grin to more complex designs (only Pirates did it before). Maybe the felt a need for added control at the time? Now with more advanced printing technology this was no longer necessary and when the old mould needed to be replaced they changed it to a more typical stud where the letters 'LEGO' could be applied (I heard they are very sensitive about this type of brand identity)?

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By in Netherlands,

"when the old mould needed to be replaced they changed it to a more typical stud where the letters 'LEGO' could be applied (I heard they are very sensitive about this type of brand identity)?"

That's the most likely reason: to be able to apply the LEGO branding to minifig heads and protect the minifig.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-33147827

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