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When Lego got it right

BILLUND, Denmark--You and just about everyone you've ever known has played with them. We all love them. But there was a time before Lego perfected its automatic binding bricks.

As part of Road Trip 2011, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman visited Lego headquarters in this small Danish town, and also took in the building--well, its third iteration, after two fires--where Ole Kirk Kristiansen founded the Lego company in 1932.

Today, part of that building is set aside for what is essentially the official Lego museum, though the company prefers to not use that term. It's more of a living history.

Inside, a broad archive displays the Lego legacy, from early wooden toys to the latest innovations. There's even an entire room dedicated solely to the collaboration between Lego and George Lucas' "Star Wars" brand.

This is a picture of prototype bricks from 1957 that cemented Lego's use of binding bricks with three tubes that held them together firmly, a method the company patented the next year. The innovation allowed bricks to be stacked together in far, far more ways than was possible with bricks that could only be stacked directly on top of each other, as was the case previously.

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Early Lego bricks

The bricks in the foreground of this picture are the original automatic binding Lego bricks, created in 1949. Though they could be stacked on top of each other, they weren't especially stable, and they couldn't be stacked in the myriad ways the three-tube bricks Lego patented in 1958 can be.

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Automatic binding bricks box

This is a box for one of the first automatic binding bricks sets, from 1949.

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Lego yo-yo

Lego founder Ole Kirk Kristiansen worked on a lot of toys before he came across the plastic brick we all know and love.

In the early days, he focused on wooden toys, and made a lot of yo-yos when those toys were all the rage.

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Repurposed yo-yos

When the yo-yo craze died out, and the market for the toys became saturated, Kristiansen still had a large unsold surplus of them. He managed to find ways to repurpose them, including cutting them in half and using them as wheels for other toys, like this horse-drawn cart.

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Train and tractors

These are early wooden train and tractor toys from Lego.

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Lego bus

From 1932 to 1960 Lego produced wooden toys, including buses like this one. The company abandoned working with wood when its factory burned down for the second time. From that point on, it focused strictly on plastic. But until that point, wooden toys accounted for between a quarter and a third of Lego's revenues, so though the decision no doubt helped the company become a global name, it was a difficult choice at the time.

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Wooden car

This is a wooden Lego car from 1939. According to a message in the archives, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, son of the company's founder, "wanted to become an apprentice car mechanic. But his father asked him to stay with the family firm. During a period of study at Haslev Technical School in 1939, Godtfred designed several new cars for the firm."

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Tractor set box

This is the box for a wooden Lego tractor set from 1935.

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Box with children

By 1953, Lego had already attracted a wide variety of copycats for its bricks and sets. So in order to set his products aside, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, who was by then running the company, began putting pictures of his children on the covers of the company's sets. That way, no one could copy the pictures on the box and get away with claiming it was their own photograph.

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Molding machine from the '40s

This is a Lego injection plastic molding machine from the 1940s.

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Close-up

Here, we see a close-up of the injection plastic molding system from the 1940s-era machine.

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First Lego town plan

This is the first Lego Town Plan set, one of the company's first sets in which all the pieces fit together. The Town Plan set, from the 1950s, was a hit with parents who loved the idea that they could teach their children traffic rules, something that was important in Denmark because this was the time when cars were first becoming affordable to the masses, and a lot of families now had cars.

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First Lego wheels

The first wheels for the Lego brick system were introduced in 1962 and were a big hit because they allowed children (and adults, too) to make cars that could move.

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First space model

In 1978, Lego embarked on one of its most successful ventures, the production of space-related sets.

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Star Wars room with Death Star

Inside the official Lego archives in Billund, Denmark, the company has a large room dedicated solely to its partnership--begun in 1998--with George Lucas and the "Star Wars" brand. This is the center of the room, where a large Death Star dominates.

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The whole Star Wars room

This is a look at the whole "Star Wars" room.

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Millennium Falcon set

Displayed here, the original Millennium Falcon set was the largest ever produced by Lego. It had more than 5,000 pieces and its manual was several hundred pages long.

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Han Solo in carbonite

On the wall in the "Star Wars" room is this photograph of a Lego version of Han Solo in carbonite, from the "Empire Strikes Back."

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Original Mindstorms

This is one of the original Lego Mindstorms robots, from 1998.

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