The Automatic Binding Brick

After Alexander Parkes unveiled the first plastic, the cellulose-based Parkesine, in 1862 there was considerable interest and research into the new material: celluloid and cellulose acetate were in use by the turn of the century, bakelite by 1910, and viscose (or rayon) by 1939. But the dramatic pace of research, development and manufacturing as part of the war effort is really when the industry took off. After the war the market was flooded with low-cost plastic consumer goods, and especially for our purposes, with new plastic toys.

Apparently Ole had been paying attention and he began to study the idea of using plastic for his toys. In 1947 he was vsited by a salesman from Hull who represented a British machine-tool company trying to find new markets for their injection molding equiptment. Against the advice of those around him, he bought one of the machines. The new machine cost 30,000 DKK, more than twice the previous years’ profits.1 1. Lego’s total revenue in 1947 was 450,000 DKK. He initially wanted to buy three of the machines but, at least temporarily, the rest of the family managed to hold him back.

The first Injection Machine, 1949. Click for larger image Early Injection Molding, 1950. Click for larger image
The original injection molding machine and the molding room, ca. 1950

Plastics were gaining widespread acceptance and use in Europe but there was still considerable risk with Ole’s new idea. It was the first injection molding machine in Denmark. The company wasn’t even sure it could source replacement parts, molds, or the necessary raw materials. For the next two years the company worked on designing new toys and trying to obtain a source for cellulose acetate. They finally found a supplier in England.

Along with the new machine Ole received several sample parts showing its capabilities. Among these were samples of a toy brick made by Injection Moulders, Ltd, of London. It was Hilary Fisher Page’s Kiddicraft brick.2 2. Interlego A.G. v. Tyco Industries [1989] 1 A.C. 217. During cross examination Godtfred indicated that He and Ole had received Kiddicraft samples, which served as the basis of the original Automatic Binding Brick. Lego’s competitors widely cite this as a fundamental issue, but the real innovations for the Lego brick and System would occur later.

The new material meant new designs, and the first plastic toys, made of cellulose acetate, were much different than the existing wood toys. Early examples, first marketed in 1949, include a fish-shaped baby rattle, a bear in an airplane and a new toy block. Lego had long made traditional cube-shaped wooden blocks (“Lego Klodser”) but Ole wanted to try something else with plastic. He turned to the sample Kiddicraft block and tried to copy it:

3. The Lego Group. Developing a Product Leaflet. Billund: The Lego Group, 1997. pp 2–3. “With the cooperation of a tooling works in Copenhagen, we modified the design of the brick, and moulds were made. The modifications in relation to the Kiddicraft bricks included straightening round corners and converting inches to cm and mm, which altered the size of the brick by approx. 0.1 mm in relation to the Kiddicraft brick. The studs on the bricks were also flattened on top.” 3

The result was the Automatic Binding Brick, and, although it didn’t seem so at the time, the beginning of an empire.

The Automatic Binding Bricks

Automatic Binding Bricks, 1949. Click for more
Example Automatic Binding Bricks

The original elements were 2 × 2 and 2 × 4 bricks with 2 side slits and 2 × 2, 2 × 3 and 2 × 4 panel windows and 2 × 4 panel doors. The earliest elements had no identifying marks anywhere on the brick. Later in 1949 new molds were introduced that had a block letter “LEGO” molded on the underside.

4. The early bricks were not particularly well-molded. Excess plastic from the mold typically filled the side slits and the cut marks from the runners are evident. By comparison the Kiddicraft bricks, manufactured by a third party, were much better made. The original molds produced 12–16 bricks in a combination of sizes on a single runner (or ingate). The molding operator had to feed the plastic granules into a hopper and manually release the final product from the machine. The individual bricks were then cut off the runner with a sharp knife by hand. Lego would get significantly better at this as time passed.4


Set 700/3. Click for larger image
Set 700/3, ca.1950

The first Automatic Binding Brick sets were known as Gaveæske (Gift Sets).5 5. Note that Automatic Binding Bricks was the Danish name. After the War it was a common practice among Danish companies to use English names for their products. In 1949 at least 4 different sets were released: 700/1, 700/2, 700/3 and 700/4 (listed in descending size). In 1950 the 700/3A (between 3 and 4 in size), 700/5 and 700/6 sets were released. The gift sets were simply boxes of elements hand packaged in a zig-zag pattern in a shallow box. This packaging formed the basis of the basic set and has been the primary way Lego has been sold ever since. The 700/x set numbers and generic packaging would last until the mid 1960’s.

DK 1950 catalog. Click for more
Lego Automatic Binding Brick catalog, 1950

The original Automatic Binding Brick sets were only available in Denmark and even then they were not widely distributed. Retailers were not very interested in the sets and would only accept them if they could be returned. They did not sell particularly well and many were returned unsold to Lego.