Editorial: Building blocks

The blocks on our cover will be instantly recognisable to all of our readers. What's made Lego such a successful survivor over the generational and technological change of the last half century? Is it simply a great toy?

The company thinks it's something more than that and Pelle Neroth looks at the company's ambitions in our feature starting on p18. Lego Universe, now just a pre-launch website with some games on it, will launch as a site for virtual business and engineering later this year. A concept ten years in the making called 'Lego Business Works' will float in this virtual universe, helping managers to learn about their companies by 'building' them in Lego. Kids will be playing with real bricks while adults work with virtual ones. Surely that should be the other way around?

And don't miss out on your chance for some serious play: next month the IET will be releasing its first ever viral marketing campaign, in the shape of a game with Lego Technic pieces. You can build virtual machines with gears, beams, conveyors and motors to solve puzzles, and then you can set new puzzles for your friends.

Over on p22, Lego engineer Bee Thakore explains how she wants to use Lego and a technique called 'crowdsourcing' to build some really ambitious machines. Bee is shortlisted for the Young Woman Engineer of the Year award.

In a new book we review on p24, MIT students tell stories of how they were defined by their childhood toys and even how Lego led them to make inventions that changed the world. Lego is one of the inspirations behind the idea for a new generation of gadgets, as consumers themselves are encouraged to put together simple technology building blocks to assemble their own products. Companies like Modu and Bug Labs had the first examples of the DIY consumer electronics at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and you can see those on p34

And have you ever considered how beautifully engineered Lego is itself? The pieces fit together tightly every time, and yet they always come apart so easily (well, nearly always, with a little help from your teeth every now and again). Sean Davies visited lego's factory in Denmark to find out how they do it (p64).

On our website (www.theiet.org/engtechmag [new window]) we're running a poll on the best construction toy of all time. Generations growing up before Lego will remember Meccano fondly - especially the metal stuff that a certain generation go misty eyed over.

There really are some Lego obsessives out there - from scene makers like the semi-serious www.thebricktestament.com , through all the hackers (just search 'hack Lego' for lots of those) to my personal favourite: a minimalist New York Times blog in Lego by illustrator Christoph Niemann (See the 2 February entry on http://niemann.blogs.nytimes.com/ [new window]).

Not everyone is a fan though. In our occasional Inventors' Inbox pages (p94), two inventors discuss the ultimate toy. Patrick Andrews (who has achieved his goal of an invention a day for a year) lists the criteria only to admit that Lego probably meets them all and a few more. But Mark Sheahan, the world's first inventor in residence (at the British Library), isn't so sure: "It's a brick!" he types. "Okay a cleverly promoted brick, I give you, but I never wanted to be a bricklayer (although a noble trade) as a kid."

I'd never though of it that way. Just a toy? Just a brick? Read our special and make up your own mind. I do know this from experience: bare feet, kitchen floor, Lego piece, in the night….that really hurts. Ouch!

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