COPENHAGEN (AFP) — Lego's colourful bricks that have inspired kids' imaginations worldwide celebrated their 50th anniversary Monday after resisting fierce competition from high-tech computer games that nearly brought the company down a few years ago.
On January 28, 1958, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen submitted a patent for the interlocking and studded plastic brick that can now be found in almost every child's toy box.
The simple building block has become one of the most well-known and popular toys in the world.
The key to its success?
"The Lego brick doesn't age with time and continues to fascinate because it allows children, and others, to develop their creativity, imagination and curiosity and let it wander free," said Charlotte Simonsen, a spokeswoman at Lego's headquarters in the western Danish town of Billund.
The family company Lego, whose name comes from the first two letters of the Danish words "Leg godt" or "play well" in English, was founded before the invention of the famous block, by Ole Kristiansen in 1932.
The company's iconic toy allows an infinite number of assembly combinations. With just two bricks there are 24 different combinations, and with six there are 915 million possibilities, according to Lego.
A half-century after its creation, more than 400 million children and adults play each year with the bricks, spending five billion hours a year putting them together and pulling them apart.
The bricks made today can still interlock with those made in the first batch in 1958, note avid Lego fans.
And make no mistake about it, Lego bricks are not just child's play -- they also capture the imagination of adults.
South Korean adventurer Heo Young-Ho, who climbed Mount Everest in 1987, left a Lego toy behind in the snow after his ascent.
"I've kept a box in the attic with Lego from my childhood. They never go out of style and they box is full of memories of long hours spent building things with my friends," said 21-year-old Alexander.
Primo, Quatro, Duplo, Toolo, Technic, Mindstorm... New Lego bricks have been developed throughout the years to suit the needs of babies and adolescents, the pieces' perfect fit making piracy difficult.
After its planetary success, Lego experienced a severe crisis at the end of the 1990s, hit hard by fierce competition from interactive electronic and computer games which brought the Danish company to its knees for the first time in its history.
Named "Toy of the Century" in 1999 by US business magazine Fortune, Lego suffered through a dark period that last several years that risked relegating the plastic brick to the history books.
The company had diversified into theme parks and branded products, including clothing, books, watches and multimedia games, but reported millions of dollars (euros) in losses in 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2004.
Some experts were quick to eulogize the colourful brick, including educationalist and toy researcher Torben Hangaard Rasmussen.
"Lego bricks belong to the industrial era when children liked to build things, playing wannabe engineers. Nowadays, the most popular toys are inspired by the virtual world," he said in 2004.
Then, at the height of Lego's crisis, owner and chief executive officer Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen tried to get a hold on the situation and save the family business from bankruptcy, injecting more than 800 million kroner (158 million dollars, 107 million euros) of his personal fortune into the business.
Several months later he resigned as chief executive, handing over the reins to 35-year-old Joergen Vig Knudstorp, who brought a breath of fresh air to the company. Determined to bring the company back to financial stability, he proceeded to lay off staff, focus on core operations and close down production sites.
The company began to prosper again, and in 2006 it posted sales of 7.8 billion kroner (1.04 billion euros, 1.5 billion dollars) in 130 countries and a 1.4 billion kroner net profit.
Seven boxes of Lego are sold every second around the world, and 19 billion components are produced each year -- enough to wrap around the Earth's circumference five times.
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