30 March 2021

Old Elementary: A brief history of LEGO® magnets

Tim Goddard (@tim_goddard928) is back with another delve into the parts of yesteryear: an overview of various magnets the LEGO Group have included in products over the decades. 


Magnets have been in LEGO® sets for a long time. They were first used as practical train carriage couplings starting back in 1967 and for were restricted to train sets for over two decades. A variety of parts were made exclusively for this purpose and they were just perfect for a bit of shunting and easy carriage separation.

There are a few variants of these train pieces and they are considered too old to receive complete catalogue entries on most sites, but you can find them on BrickLink under either Magnet or Train. They are split into two categories because, you know, BrickLink. 

The main ones were:

  • Magnetic coupling train with 7mm cylinder (BrickLink ID x547b) which paired with a modified 2x4 plate first used in 1967
  • Magnetic coupling, train, for train base (735) first used in 1972

Set 117 ©1967 The LEGO Group & set 171 ©1972 The LEGO Group. Images via bricks.argz.com

These were attached to a variety of train bases in many sizes, including some with battery boxes. Examples include:

  • Train base 6x12 (x487c01)
  • Train battery box with black magnets (3443c07)

These magnets were colour-coded red and blue for ease of connection, and populated dozens of sets throughout the 1970s as well as a couple of supplementary packs (great for when these less-than-robust elements snapped off the base).

The 1980s: A new LEGO magnet


In 1980 what I and many others consider to be the classic LEGO magnet was introduced, part 73092. The magnet itself is the same diameter as a minifig head, and is wrapped in a plastic sheath with two connecting pins sticking out, shown below in blue. 

The pins are just about the same diameter as the pin found on a variety of small wheels, such as those often used with motorbikes, including the pulley wheel hub (3464) still found in sets today.

Various pieces were created right up until the late 1990s to hold this magnet to allow System compatibility:

The 1990s: Magnets in space… and beyond

Although this magnet was first created with trains in mind, 10 years later a momentous change occurred; these attractive ferrous cylinders branched out into other themes. 1990 was the year of M:Tron.

M:Tron checks out the strength of this magnetic crate with his magnetometer

It was an attractive inclusion in the newest Space theme; you could now pick up various cargo crates without actually touching them, amazing!

M:Tron advertisement ©1990 The LEGO Group

The classic set 6989 Mega Core Magnetiser used this functionality to great effect and even after M:Tron ended in 1993, magnets stuck around. A mainstay of Space sets for many years, they could be found in inspired themes like the cool Ice Planet 2002, the evil Spyrius, the buzzing Insectoids and the... umm... confused UFO.

They were just as prevalent in the watery fantasy world of Aquazone for the lifetime of the theme and its spin-offs.They popped up in several other lines too, like Rock Raiders, Adventurers and LEGO Education sets.

The 2000s and 2010s: Magnets become less attractive

By the beginning of the new millenium the 73092 magnet was largely only present in the Train theme once more, plus some Harry Potter train sets. The exception was several Star Wars sets, most notably as a means to hold panels in place on the mighty 10030 Imperial Star Destroyer.

Some new but disappointing magnet pieces did appear in this period. Two came from the Quidditch set 4767 Harry and the Hungarian Horntail in 2005:

  • Magnet Ball, Harry Potter Sports (bb0188
  • Magnet Minifigure Utensil Harry Potter Sports (bb0187)

These are both pretty weak and boring for use, at least outside of a game of Quidditch. They’re also very rare as they were never used again – perhaps an example of the kind of expensive element development that contributed to the near-collapse of the LEGO Group in the early 2000s – but there’s a more likely reason, as evidenced by the fact that these were not the only magnets to disappear at this time. Part 73092 was last used in a new set in 2008. Why was this? Were children losing interest in the attractions of physics? Were magnets becoming prohibitively expensive? The truth was a bit more gruesome.

Around this time there were an increasing number of reported cases of children swallowing magnets and becoming seriously ill. They could become attached to other ingested magnets or metal through intestine walls or other tissue, blocking blood supply and causing ripping. I do not think I need to go any further.

Obviously being the responsible company that it is, the LEGO Group could not continue to include magnets that could be swallowed and so 73092 stopped being used in sets.

To ensure safety a new train buffer piece with integrated magnet was released in 2005, Train Buffer Beam with Sealed Magnets (64424c01). Far too big to be swallowed, this piece allowed the continued use of magnets in train sets but otherwise they disappeared from standard LEGO sets. Several other minor variants of train buffers have since been released with different element IDs. most recently in 2018, but the designs are similar and all use the same approach to magnet integration.


You could still get magnets in licensed third-party products (often categorised as ‘gear’) and in minifigure collections in various forms. The latter first appeared in 2006 with small powerful magnets in their feet, like this rather weathered Stormtrooper who has lived on various fridges as I have moved houses over the last 14 years.


After a few years this changed to sets with Brick 2X4 W. Plate And Magnet (90754) which came with non-magnetised minifigures for display.

This changed again to a similar set-up but with the minifigs glued to the magnet base; this proved rather less attractive to fans who had mainly been buying the sets to get hold of the minifigs, so they soon faded away. Other iterations with a minifig on a round backing were also tried out, but didn’t last long.

There were a number of gear sets with 2-module wide bricks with magnets in the tubes, and even some 4x4 bricks but these were solid on the underside so you could only attach other bricks to the top. Some other products have been available but these were even less attractive.

Like the Stormtrooper, age has had a corrosive effect on these bricks

The 2020s: Return of the magnet

All this history is building up to something new. Yes, early in 2020, magnets made a welcome return! Two LEGO City sets, 60243 Police Helicopter Chase and 60245 Monster Truck Heist, featured two new composite pieces.

Tune in next time when I investigate these new magnets, cut one open to see what lies inside, and look at the rest of the contents of set 60243.

READ MORE: Latest LEGO® House Limited Edition reviewed: 40502 The Brick Moulding Machine

Help New Elementary keep publishing articles like this. Become a Patron!

Massive thanks go to our 'Vibrant Coral' patrons: Elspeth De Montes, Megan Lum, Markus Rollbühler, Jorgito Mozo, Mevits Bricks, Font Review Journal, Baixo LMmodels, Andy Price, Anthony Wright, Chris Cook, London AFOLs, Gerald Lasser, Big B Bricks, Dave Schefcik, David and Breda Fennell, Huw Millington, Neil Crosby, Antonio Serra, Beyond the Brick, Sue Ann Barber & Trevor Clark, and Kevin Gascoigne. Vale Iain Adams, a great supporter of New Elementary.

LEGO® Shop at Home
USA: Save up to 30%. See what's on sale!
UK: Free delivery when you spend £50 or more at LEGO!
Australia: Discover the latest promotions and offers on LEGO.com

Amazon USA: Amazon.com Canada: Amazon.ca UK: Amazon.co.uk Deutschland: Amazon.de. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

All text and images are © New Elementary unless otherwise attributed.

19 comments:

  1. Can't wait for part two! I haven't gotten any sets with these new magnets but early last year I was able to get a hands-on look at them at the Lego store, and their basic shape, strong attraction, and ample connection points make them seem like they could be versatile enough to see other uses in the future. I also like the little magnet icon on the attractive surface—it's good visual design that should hopefully make their use obvious in future sets (as well as for people sorting through used lots of bricks).

    Regarding the older magnets, it's perhaps worth pointing out that those weren't the only "magnetic" parts in the system. The old train/space magnets were also sometimes used in themes like Exploriens and Insectoids alongside special magnetic stickers, allowing the fossil tiles from the former and the energy crystals from the latter to be picked up with those magnets.

    It's a little interesting to me that for as much as stickers are used in the modern day, we rarely see ones with "gimmicks" of that sort. Back in the day there were magnetic stickers, holographic stickers, heat-sensitive stickers... whereas nowadays pretty much the only "specially treated" stickers I can think of are the ones with reflective foil. It's not that I necessarily miss those sorts of gimmicks so much as I wonder why some of them went away. The magnetic ones probably had to do with the same safety concerns as the magnets themselves, and I know that glow-in-the-dark ones went away after Monster Fighters due to similar safety issues... perhaps the same applied to some of those other gimmicks too?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I would guess the same reason. Perhaps even if there are safe options, the cost of discovering and testing them outweighs the benefit?

      Delete
    2. No, he's got a point. Alpha Team: Mission Deep Freeze used colored filters to reveal secret messages and symbols. Mostly this was done with printed elements, but a few stickers were produced that worked with the color filters. I don't think they've done anything with this technique since, and it's a passive design that's not likely to get charged with safety violations like the GitD stickers.

      The magnetic stickers weren't powerful enough to perforate bowels, cause obstructions, or cut off circulation, but without magnets to pair them with, they don't really serve any purpose and I don't expect to see them again anytime soon (the negative PR they could receive just isn't worth the risk). The only sticker gimmick I can recall seeing in recent use (excluding those that have been pulled from the market) is the Mario barcodes. Again, it's a passive design that bears no serious chance of posing a safety risk. There could simply be a blanket ban on any sticker gimmicks that would require additional safety testing.

      Delete
  2. An attempt of translating the German ad, by means of my rusty School German...

    ---
    Interstellar incident!

    The Space Rescue Center is prepared for operations.* Every second counts! Lego Space - Exciting adventures in building, playing and collecting.
    ----

    *(I'm not sure on if I interpreted this correctly. I think Einsatzort means a base for preparing operative missions or something similar...)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. After pondering, I guess a reasonable translation could be:

      "The Space Rescue Center is on the scene."

      Delete
    2. Yeah seems like Einsatzort can mean place of action, deployment site, operations site, that sort of thing.

      The same advertisement appears in this post with lots of other period ads, translation by the author.
      https://ramblingbrick.com/2018/09/11/minifigure-40-legoland-space-advertising-archive/

      Delete
    3. Thank you. I see that a lot of the ads there seem to have been translated through typing and web translation. Hence the typo of Weltraum (Outer space) as Waltraum, left untranslated...

      Delete
  3. Nice overview! I believe there are also some Clickits parts with magnets in them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hmm, at first I thought you were wrong, but it seems there is one single Clikit part with a magnet.

      https://www.bricklink.com/v2/catalog/catalogitem.page?P=clikits108#T=C&C=50

      Delete
    2. Clickits was certainly a source of interesting things (including of all things a fully functional combination lock)

      Delete
  4. In addition to the newish City magnets, there is now also a 4x4 fridge magnet with a studded top which comes in 8 colors. Might be interesting to compare its MOC-friendliness to the other new magnets.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 4x4 magnet bricks have been around since 2008, and Bricklink has documented 16 different colors since its debut. I picked up one or two of the chrome-gold 2-packs that were released in 2009, and it wasn't until years later that I realized there's no regular 4x4 brick.

      Delete
  5. There's also a magnet that's just a LEGO logo on a red square. And there's a subset of magnets that nobody ever thinks of as magnets, because they're inside of electronics (basically everything with a speaker has a magnet).

    The Quidditch magnets are a really odd addition because they came right after the company did a stem-to-stern overhaul to prevent stuff like single-use molds...and they came in a set with a dragon that used exclusive parts as well. But somehow they stayed within the new rules.

    One interesting thing about the magnetic bricks is that this is the only 4x4 brick they've ever produced. For whatever reason, they've never released one that doesn't have a magnet sealed inside. Speaking of which, I tried to get inside one of the minifig magnet bases several years ago. I was able to remove the screws...and it still wouldn't open. At the time, The LEGO Company was running a full booth at Brickworld Chicago, so I mentioned it to one of the people working the booth, and she said, "Yeah, I know" with a look on her face that said the company had put a lot of thought and effort into designing magnet compartments that would not come open short of using a saw. They are _serious_ about not getting sued over some kid getting an intestinal blockage. Buckyballs can be packaged with text saying they're not for kids, but good luck trying to make that work with a LEGO set.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Out of curiosity I went and searched bricklink for "magnet" and "magnetic" and lo! a Mindstorms NXT Magnetic Sensor! (MS1035-1). I don't know anything about mindstorms, did this come packaged with Lego magnets, or was it intended to be used some other way?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I would assume the sensor was sold separately, and if you would be stupid enough to use it as intended, you'd have yourself to blame! =P

      Delete
    2. I don't have one to hand but I would expect the Magnetic Sensor to be a reed switch embedded in the technic element rather than a magnet itself. As the switch passes through a magnetic field the magnetic field closes the switch, thus triggering the sensor.

      Delete
  7. Now I came to think about that Lego has had small compasses in a few sets, mostly in the Pirates theme. It looked like they worked, so I guess they must have included magnets, as well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, the compasses are functional. The degree of magnetism involved is so small that the only risk of perforation comes from the shape of the compass needle itself. LEGO System compasses use a disc instead of a needle, so the risk is almost negligible. Likewise the magnetic stickers, and any sheet magnet that's larger than a postage stamp (the LEGO logo fridge magnet, or the last wave of magnet minifigs that came mounted to a large disc with a background image on it) is so week that even if you do manage to swallow two of them, they might physically obstruct your bowels, but probably aren't going to cause any of the more dangerous problems associated with swallowing magnets.

      Pirates definitely was the main source of the first System compass, accounting for seven of the ten sets that featured one. Oddly, the remaining three sets included two from Scala and one from Belville, where the compass was more in scale with a handheld design. Aquazone had nine instances of a more tech-styled compass that doesn't even have proper NEWS markings. BTW, there's also an NXT compass sensor which I don't think was previously mentioned, and which probably also has some sort of magnetic component.

      Delete

As an Amazon Associate, New Elementary earn from qualifying purchases.