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Lego, the world's most famous toy, turns 80

After getting its start making wooden toys in a single building in a small Danish town in 1932, the company has grown into a global powerhouse with millions of devoted fans.

These are Lego's original plastic bricks. Since they were hollow inside, they didn't stack together well. They were invented in 1949, and became the beginning of Lego's worldwide toy empire. The company itself has just celebrated its 80th birthday.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Looking at Lego's most impressive creations -- its giant "Star Wars" sets, its Master Builder Academy initiative, its programmable Mindstorms system -- it's easy to forget that it was 80 years ago that the global behemoth had much more humble beginnings when Ole Kirk Christiansen started a little wooden toy company in Billund, Denmark.

Today, Lego is celebrating its 80th birthday, and touting its growth from a tiny outfit in a single building in Billund to the world's third-largest "producer of play materials," employing 10,000 people, many in its variety of production facilities in Europe and beyond.

As the company is fond of pointing out, "Lego" comes from the combination of two Danish words, "leg" and "godt," meaning "play well." And in the early years, when it was focusing its energies on wooden toys, it was by no means a world-changer.

But in the mid-1940s, Christiansen began playing with plastic, discovering that the material was ideal for toy production. And then in 1949, Lego began turning out the first plastic bricks -- small stacking pieces that at first didn't lock together very well because they were hollow inside. In 1958 came the breakthrough that would make Lego bricks perhaps the most famous toy in history: the knobs-and-tubes connecting system that today is the foundation of more than 3,100 different Lego "elements."

The company likes to point out that a pile of bricks can be combined in a nearly infinite number of ways. Using just six same-colored 2x4 bricks, there are 915 million possible ways to connect them. "The imagination has therefore no boundaries," Lego wrote in a release touting its 80th birthday.

All told today, there are 25 different Lego product lines -- toys for boys, toys for girls, and projects for older kids, younger kids, sci-fi fans, and car-racing fanatics. There are "Lord of the Rings" sets and ninja packages. There are big trucks and small cities. In other words, there's something for everyone. Here's looking forward to the company's next eight decades of making play more fun.