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One Man's Tiny Plastic Universe

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The inventor of Playmobil began his toymaking career as a big brother.

Hans Beck's parents divorced when he was young, then each remarried and had more children. Mr. Beck and his sister soon had eight younger half-brothers and -sisters.

"When I was about 10, I started making toys for them," he says. He made "little cars and trucks, little figures, dolls, some furniture for the dolls." But he didn't dream of becoming a toy designer. The profession "didn't really exist" when he was growing up in Zirndorf, Germany.

He was a teenager when World War II ended, and he trained as a cabinetmaker. He also started making model airplanes. He was going to make model planes for a company, but it didn't work out. The owner of the company asked him to think about toy figures for children instead. That was in 1971.

"I looked around to see what was on the market," Beck says. A lot of what he found were the tin soldiers that had been around since the 1800s. They couldn't bend or move. They didn't fit well into the adventure stories children like to invent.

Dealers weren't so sure

The figure Beck developed was just under three inches tall. It fit well in a child's hand, and it could move its head, arms, hands, and legs. On its face was painted a benign smile.

"My figures were quite simple, but they allowed children room for their imagination," he says.

He wanted to test the new figures. So when he had children over to visit, "I would put the little figures in their hands without saying anything about what they were. They accepted them right away.... They invented little scenarios for them. They never grew tired of playing with them."

Today, Playmobil (pronounced "play-mo-BEEL") figures come with elaborate equipment and accessories, including real flashing lights on the fire trucks, a tiny treasure map for the pirates, even ball-bearing in-line skates. But "the central point has always been the figure, not the surroundings," Beck says.

The owner of the company wasn't very interested in the figures at first, but he let Beck keep working on them.

Oddly, what helped put them into children's hands was the worldwide oil crisis of 1973-74.

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