How LEGO And MIT Came Together To Give Us Lego Robots

How LEGO And MIT Came Together To Give Us Lego Robots

Pour one out for Mindstorms. The build-it-yourself Lego robotics brand is getting discontinued at the end of next year, but that doesn’t mean it won’t forever live on in our hearts. But it almost didn’t happen. In his book The Lego Story, Jens Andersen writes about the toy company’s growth from making wooden ducks to making Hollywood movies. Particularly engrossing is his writeup on how the company, spearheaded by Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, himself the grandson of Lego founder Ole Kirk Kristiansen and the son of Lego “System” designer Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, narrowly avoided giving in to ‘80s fearmongering surrounding the success of handheld gaming consoles to dive headfirst into sets built to work with computers. While Lego’s initial robotics experiments, made in collaboration with MIT, weren’t labelled as Mindstorms, they laid the groundwork for the line’s eventual launch in 1998.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 7, “Play.”

Excerpted from the book THE LEGO STORY by Jens Andersen. Copyright © 2021 by Jens Andersen. English translation © 2022 by Caroline Waight. From Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

More than ever, it was crucial that LEGO stay alert and on its toes. In the early 1980s, the whole industry found itself confronted with a previously unknown challenge: handheld gaming consoles, which were suddenly disrupting traditional forms of play and changing more than a few wish lists in the run-up to Christmas. In Billund, the situation was initially viewed with supreme calm. When a newspaper asked if the LEGO Group would come out with anything electronic the next year, the Head of Public Relations, Peter Ambeck-Madsen, replied, “We haven’t changed our product-development plans because of these irritating electronic wasp stings on the toy market. But the explosive growth that has taken place in electronic games is helping to keep us vigilant.”

Kjeld: Personally, I was fascinated by the first handheld games, and later also by the big gaming consoles with joysticks. I wouldn’t say that as a toy company we were afraid of the new competition, however, at least not in the beginning. Of course, we talked a lot about how we might integrate something digital into the LEGO experience, and, having inherited my granddad’s curiosity about machines and technology, I really gave it a lot of thought.

It soon became clear that gaming consoles couldn’t be ignored. Danish schoolchildren of the early 1980s spent their school recesses enclosed by walls of synthetic sound effects, staring fixedly at the little gadgets gripped in their hands, while their thumbs pressed buttons at lightning speed, issuing various commands. Donkey Kong, Octopus, and Mario Bros. were just a few of the games that could be played on the consoles, which were invented and developed in Japan.

The handheld gaming devices became an existential challenge in record time. Parents and teachers were driven to madness by the beeps and boops, while some toy stores in Denmark initially refused to stock them at all because some critics posited that they undermined good, healthy forms of play. The head buyer for Magasin, a major department store in Denmark, called the games “nothing but beeping,” and, like LEGO’s management team, believed they’d be just a flash in the pan. Many Danish childcare centres were also somewhat circumspect about the “antisocial” new type of game, and severl after-school clubs forbade children from bringing the electronic handsets. The head of one such centre in Kolding explained in the spring of 1983:

We’ve had enough now. There was a huge boom in these games just before Christmas, and it was at its worst here before Easter. The games made children eerily passive. They play all by themselves with the handset, so there’s never any motivation to socialise with the other children. If anything, it can lead to aggression if another child is blocking a player’s light.

Today these strong reactions have been relegated to the level of quaint historical anecdote. The truth is that the wave of beeping handsets, which were quickly followed by gaming consoles like the Commodore 64 and Nintendo’s revolutionary Gameboy, were merely the harbingers of a tsunami of digital hardware that was to flood children’s and teenagers’ bedrooms across most of the developed world, all the way up to the turn of the millennium. Over the course of the next decade, the way children played, whether by themselves or with others, and especially what they played with, underwent a paradigmatic shift.

At first, LEGO’s attitude was one of scepticism; they believed the games to be a passing fad. When Børsen, one of Denmark’s leading business newspapers, published a special feature on the internationally renowned toy company in the spring of 1983, the former and current managing directors both went on record saying that they didn’t consider electronic gaming to be a threat to LEGO’s continued growth. On this issue, father and son were, apparently, of like mind. Godtfred remarked, “In the toy industry, we’re among the most successful companies in the world, and we’re in no way shocked by the popularity of these electronic games.”

Yet the journalist from Børsen sensed a rift between the two generations, so he pressed the question, asking the son whether LEGO would start producing electronic toys. It wasn’t inconceivable, argued the journalist, since LEGO had recently announced that it would be releasing a series of books featuring stories from the FABULAND universe, in partnership with Denmark’s biggest publishing house, and there were also rumours flying around about LEGO films. So, would LEGO continue to shift further away from its core business?

Kjeld denied this, but added:

Of course, that doesn’t mean we won’t use every new technology we may find relevant. But it will be because the new technology can serve our purposes. We won’t introduce a new technology into the product for technology’s sake. If we use electronics, it will be incorporated in a natural way, just as we have been using motors and other technology as a natural part of our range for many years.

Kjeld, the computer nerd, had already envisaged LEGO finding its own niche in the new technology, in the intersection between play and education — in other words, in schools. As early as 1980–1981, LEGO’s designers collaborated with educators and experts from various fields and forms of teaching, and a commercial for DUPLO featured the slogan: “Make learning fun for little hands.”

The educational aspect of the toys was further emphasised over the following years. LEGO worked on a range of proposals for technologically enhanced building projects for teachers, students, and young children aged eighteen months and up, for a new product line called LEGO Education. LEGO Technic 1 launched in 1985, followed a couple of years later by LEGO DUPLO Mosaic. The company also set up a learning portal where teachers could download free educational activities, as well as instructions and activity packs for the two sets.

In 1982, in LEGO’s official fiftieth anniversary book, Kjeld used the phrase “learning through play,” and around the same time he commented to a newspaper: “Instead of reading about technological things in books, the students can build them themselves. We have a lot of faith in that market.” Not everyone in the company leadership was convinced, however, when Kjeld tried to explain that a large, important future market for LEGO would be not just schools and childcare centres, but also higher education.

Kjeld: I remember clearly one of the executives saying, “No, that won’t work. If the kids are using the bricks in school, they’ll get really sick of LEGO and won’t want to play with it when they get home.”

“Oh, come on, don’t be silly!” I said.

One evening in late February 1984, after yet another long day at the office, sitting in meeting after meeting, Kjeld was relaxing at home in Skovparken with Camilla. The television set was on, and some schoolchildren appeared onscreen, using a computer to make a little tortoise-like robot do what they asked. The scene changed, and a man with a grey beard came on, telling viewers that he’d made a special programming language that was so simple and intuitive that children could easily master it. The man was Seymour Papert, and he described computers as creative tools in a new kind of teaching, suitable for the digital age, which was just around the corner. “Education has very little to do with explanation. It has to do with engagement, with falling in love with the material.”

Kjeld was sold on the spot. Or, the Wall Street Journal wrote a few years later, it was well aligned with the ethos of a company that had “made a fortune satisfying children’s need to tinker.” For the first time, LEGO was seriously looking for answers as to how the simple little brick could find a place in the computer age.

Kjeld: I became deeply fascinated by Seymour Papert’s idea about children learning by playing with a computer and the programming language he had invented, which he called “Logo.” The day after the broadcast, I asked some employees to contact Papert, and soon got his response. Funnily enough, he’d been thinking of writing to us for a while, because he’d used LEGO bricks in several of his experiments at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. Even then, the Media Lab was an interdisciplinary stronghold of technology, encompassing all sorts of interests and widely varying ways of thinking when it came to programming and digitalization. Not long after that, I went to Boston to speak to the man.

The man Kjeld met was both a firebrand and a big kid at heart, with a diverse range of skills and talents. Trained as a mathematician, computer scientist, and educator, he was deeply inspired by the world-famous Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget had sought to understand how children construct knowledge, believing that children developed through meeting challenges. Also, at the most fundamental level, he believed they wanted to further their own development. Papert expanded on Piaget’s theories, advocating for the idea that when children built things with their hands, they were building knowledge at the same time. This type of learning was important, claimed Papert, because it lodged more deeply in the child’s brain than when the teacher simply told him or her how something worked and how it should be understood.

Meeting Papert and learning about his ideas regarding schools of the future, where the nature of play would also be the nature of learning, and computers would be on an equal footing with pencils and books, was a watershed moment for Kjeld. He was never particularly fond of his own time at school, and he saw potential in a school where the children, as Papert said, took control of their own learning and used the materials around them to explore the world and understand themselves in new ways.

Kjeld: It was Seymour who introduced me to the idea of the intelligent bricks that you could program yourself, and he gave me the inspiration for how these intelligent bricks could be the third big technological innovation in LEGO’s history. Out of the original, groundbreaking building system in 1955, we had created the wheel in 1962, which meant that the bricks could move. In 1966 came the electric motor, which meant people could get even more life and play out of their bricks. The next stage Seymour and I pictured was that people could build behaviour into our models and program their LEGO robots themselves.

In May 1985, Seymour Papert visited Denmark. Before heading to Billund to talk to Kjeld, he gave a lecture at Christiansborg to three hundred elementary school teachers about the future of learning for children in a technological society. Papert’s message was that computers could be a fantastic tool for suppressing pupils’ creativity, if that’s what you wanted to do. But machines could also be used to liberate children’s creativity and promote their independence.

After the lecture, Seymour Papert mentioned to the journalists in attendance that the Media Lab at MIT in Boston had begun collaborating with LEGO. They were working on developing bricks with built-in sensors — infrared photocells — so that robots could be programmed to react to contact with a wall or other objects. Papert also told them that the project would be ready for the American educational market within a few years; they’d offer the new, technologically sophisticated bricks to schools so that children could build robots, cranes, and vehicles out of LEGO elements, and control them on computers, using the Logo program.

Kjeld: We established a setup for developing LEGO in Boston, which would work closely with the Media Lab. I really felt an intellectual kinship with Seymour, which sounds strong, but we communicated incredibly well when we met, which we did many times in the years that followed. We never used big, fancy words and long, flawless sentences. We’d just sit together and philosophize a bit. He wasn’t really a man of many words, but when he said something, it was nearly always meaningful.

Kjeld’s faith in the concept of learning through play took a big leap forward in the late 1980s, when LEGO and the MIT Media Lab developed software for LEGO’s own models in the LEGO Technic line. The first tangible result of this overseas collaboration was presented in 1986–1987 and named LEGO TC — “TC” standing for Technic Control. Using different kinds of LEGO bricks, a control box, and software, students could now build a robot controlled with Apple and IBM computers.

These sets were making headway in American schools as early as 1990, by which time the use and demonstration of modern technology had become an obligatory part of the curriculum. Developing children into problem solvers and inventors was a pedagogical objective. As Papert put it in the Wall Street Journal: “Computers give our society, the first time, the choice of deciding whether we want to produce role-learning people who do disciplined routine work and follow orders, or whether we want to produce critical, creative minds.”

This article originally appeared in The Lego Story by Jens Andersen. Courtesy of Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Illustration: HarperCollins Publishers


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *