Notes From Around the Sundial

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Gnomon's column image, showing a sundial surrounded with the words Notes From Around the Sundial'

The Symbol of the 20th Century

Having spent most of my life living in the 20th Century, I feel we need a symbol of this significant milestone in the history of the planet. I've considered many options and have finally come up with my proposal:

The LEGO BRICK, Symbol of the 20th Century

The Lego brick is surely familiar to everyone - a small, rectangular, plastic brick, with lumps on the top. This particular brick is a 2 x 4, that is, with eight lumps on the top. It is red in colour.

So why a Lego brick? I'm going to explain this under a number of headings.


Children have had the need to play since before we became human. Traditionally they played with anything that came to hand - my mother always said that the best set of toys for a child is a kitchen cupboard full of metal pots. Occasionally in pre-industrial society, toys would be made for the children. One fascinating example comes from pre-Columbian Central America: a small wheeled cart. This proves that the Native Americans had invented the wheel, they just weren't very practical in the extremely hilly lands of Central and South America. Even as late as the Victorian Era in the 19th Century, some children got toys but most were forced to work. It was only in the 20th Century that the Western World really acknowledged that children should spend their childhood learning and playing. So it is entirely appropriate that the 20th Century should be represented by a toy.


Plastic was one of the wonder-materials of the 20th Century. It's a material which can be moulded into any shape and then sets to be hard or soft or anything in between. It can be coloured during its manufacture, or can be transparent. Its smooth surface means it is easily cleaned, making it absolutely essential in the medical industry. Today we are surrounded by plastic, so much so that we often forget completely what an amazing substance it is. I sit here typing on a plastic keyboard, which sits on a desk which looks like wood but is actually chipboard coated in plastic. There's a plastic phone, some large plastic binders, plastic DVD boxes, a plastic ball-point pen and I'm even looking at it all through plastic 'glasses'. Plastic was invented around the middle of the 19th Century with Parkesine and celluloid, but it really took off in the 20th Century. It was used for the Lego brick because it is cheap, clean, brightly coloured and clips together well, which leads us onto...


The thing that makes Lego special, of course, is that the bricks clip together. At around the time Lego was invented, there were other construction toys, made from metal (such as Meccano) or wood (such as Tinkertoy). Construction was tedious with these compared with the Lego brick - Meccano required lots of fiddling around with little nuts and bolts, which meant that a large-scale construction could take days or weeks to get finished. By the time you'd built it you were sick of it and it sat there for more weeks until you got the energy to dismantle it again. With Lego, the quick construction time means that you can play with your creation, redesign it, improve it, and break it up again all in the one day.

Of course, the clip-together feature of Lego is not as simple as it sounds. Exactly the right type of plastic needs to be used, and the bricks must be made to very close tolerances. The Lego bricks made in the 60s were not as good at clipping together - the plastic was softer. It was around 1970 that the formula for the plastic was perfected and Lego hasn't looked back since.

Of course, it's not enough to make bricks that clip together, they have to come in useful shapes as well. Some genius decided that the original Lego brick should have proportions of exactly 10 x 5 x 3. Bricks are also available at one third height, so they would be 5 x 10 x 1 on this scale. The gaps between the lumps on the top are very slightly less than one unit wide, so a flat brick can clip into the gap on its side, making the bricks even more flexible.


If any colour represents the 20th Century, it has to be the colour red, the colour of two closely related movements: the Labour Movement and Communism. This is not the place for a complete history of the workers of the world, but it is worth noticing that the concepts of Socialism and Communism probably did more than anything to shape the history of the 20th Century. Red was also the colour of Naziism, but I'll choose to ignore that.

The very first Lego came in only two colours, red and white, so red was in there from the start. Nowadays you can get the bricks in just about any colour you can imagine.

Cool Scandinavian Design

Scandinavia would always have been considered a bit of a backwater in the past, but the 20th Century saw the emergence of cool Scandinavian design - specialising in simple devices with clean lines, Scandinavian products are well known. Companies such as Ikea, Bodum and Nokia rely on this image of simplicity to stand out from their more fussy, feature-laden competitors. Lego is a good example of the clean, simple design and the classic 2 x 4 Lego brick is one of the simplest of all.

So let's all salute the Lego brick, and the 20th Century that produced it!

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