End Of An Era, As LEGO To Discontinue Mindstorms

When there are so many single board computers and other products aimed at providing children with the means to learn about programming and other skills, it is easy to forget at time before the Arduino or the Raspberry Pi and their imitators, when a computer was very much an expensive closed box.

Into this late-’90s vacuum left in the wake of the 8-bit home computer revolution came LEGO’s Mindstorms kits, a box of interlocking goodies with a special programmable brick, which gave kids the chance to make free-form computerized robotic projects all of their own. The recent news that after 24 years the company will discontinue the Mindstorms range at the end of the year thus feels like the end of an era to anyone who has ridden the accessible microcontroller train since then.

What became Mindstorms has its roots in the MIT Media Lab’s Programmable Brick project, a series of chunky LEGO bricks with microcontrollers and the Mindstorms LEGO brick contacts for motors and sensors. Their Logo programming language implementation was eschewed by LEGO in favor of a graphical system on a host computer, and the Mindstorms kit was born. The brand has since been used on a series of iterations of the controller, and a range of different robotics kits.

In 1998, a home computer had morphed from something programmable in BASIC to a machine that ran Windows and Microsoft Office. Boards such as Parallax’s BASIC Stamp were available but expensive, and didn’t come with anything to control. The Mindstorms kit was revolutionary then in offering an accessible fully programmable microcontroller in a toy, along with a full set of LEGO including motors and sensors to use with it.

We’re guessing Mindstorms has been seen off by better and cheaper single board computers here in 2022, but that doesn’t take away its special place in providing ’90s kids with their first chance to make a proper robot their way. The kits have found their place here at Hackaday, but perhaps most of the projects we’ve featured using them being a few years old now underlines why they are to meet their end. So long Mindstorms, you won’t be forgotten!

Header image: Mairi, (CC BY-SA 3.0).

46 thoughts on “End Of An Era, As LEGO To Discontinue Mindstorms

  1. Very sad, its a great concept. That said I doubt its really going anywhere, they will keep making the motors and technic parts for everything else and the community that has created so many pi/Arduino to Lego conversion bits will pick up the slack mostly. As Lego Technic is still by far the easiest way to prototype and play with mechanisms, even in the age of 3d printers its probably the cheapest too (practically immortal level of durable and reusable), its only really going to make it harder for children of non-techie parents to get into.

    I still have and use all my mindstorms RCX (mostly 1.0’s – same model as in the picture mostly with the Barrel jack bought dirt cheap years ago). Great little boxes, tough buggers too, though the 2×2 tile electrical wires are showing their age – lots of them are starting to shed the insulation and I’ve not got round to looking at how to solve that problem.

    1. I have looked into the cable stuff. Once you get the hang on opening the black connectors the rest is quite simple. Its an isolation displacement connector on the inside. I 3D printed a tool to put them back together in a vise. The real challenge are the sensors with a fixed length of cable. Those are ultrasonic-welded shut and cant be taken apart non-destructively. I hope to get around to finish my designs of 3d-printable housings for those someday.

      1. Yeah I’ve popped one apart and discovered it won’t be a huge challenge once you get a system going. Have you found a good source for Lego look alike black insulated cable too? Be nice to keep it looking stock.

        I have managed to get some of the sensors apart, if you are gentle and patient enough you can pop the odd weld with the torque non-destructively. That said the sensors are kind of garbage today in many ways, so for me I’d say just buy 2×4 or 2×3 bricks to modify or print your own.

  2. Sadness, l think I had at least as much fun with them as my kids 20 years ago. I hosted a team that competed at my kids school each year. I was fun to introduce kids to robotics and programming for the first time.

    1. I seem to recall they were super expensive even by Lego standards. For someone where getting any Lego set was strictly a Christmas/birthday scenario the mind storm (and technic even) was firmly out of reach.

      1. For what was in it the RIS with the RCX bricks was really stupendously cheap, the NXT that followed also seemed pretty good price wise. But ultimately it is all still Lego, and that puts a limit on how cheap it can be.

        Great thing with Lego though is it lasts, so most technic from the 80’s is likely just as good now as it was new, often available for rather little money if you hunt around, and as very very few parts have been discontinued spare parts for those fiddly little bits that get lost can be picked up. Won’t do us any good now, but it does mean we can pick up second hand stuff for the children in our lives affordably (or for ourselves, never let getting old make fun forbidden!)..

    2. ^ This

      Now that im 2 decades older i recently started looking at buying a set for my nephew (so he could have some fun learning stuff and i could play around with it too) but guess that idea goes out the window, theres not really much of a point to it when the system is about to be axed (it would still teach him some basics & ‘be fun’, but theres cheaper alternatives for that too)

      1. I’d suggest getting a RIS – the RCX era brick or perhaps the Cybermaster (effectively much the same thing but with RF rather than IR), those can be programmed in soo many ways thanks to the community and the original Lego programing interface is rather Scratch like for youngsters (I have had it running on linux recently(ish) – though I don’t recall if that was with WINE or VM running old windows). It might be low spec compared to some of the more modern options, but its still very capable, durable and simple for the younger child with scope to grow to be useful even for adults.

        When I bought a few more RCX ‘brains in a brick’ a few years ago they where so cheap it is practically free, couldn’t get a comparable motor driver setup cheaper, and this era is well documented with fun ways to go further electronically and sensor wise than Lego provided (and it works on more interesting methods) when/if the kid gets into electronics enough to want to.

      2. Ask your nephews parents to see if nephews school has a LEGO robotics club. I am a LEGO robotics coach in Wyoming and the program is a great way for kiddos to use the mindstorms and to compete through First LEGO League:)

  3. I wonder what this will mean for the First Lego League. Mindstorms is used extensively by FLL teams. We had purchased SPIKE Prime kit but from the article that MIGHT be continuing. Not sure. Have to see what First and Lego announce at the end of this year.

    1. As soon as I saw this article I started googling to see if there was an answer. This was how I got my start into my very successful engineering career and hope they find a quality/accessible replacement.

    2. @Hal H I was wondering the same thing. My daughter participated in FLL through a group called Fox Valley robotics in Batavia, Il, USA. The group had a minimum of 8 teams and was Fun!!! My daughters team made it the state competitions and she even has a trophy from it. The guy who ran the group was called Mr. K and has been doing the FLL for about 15 years. He’s an engineer and so is his adult daughter. I can’t emphasize how much fun we had there.

      1. Really glad to hear FLL may survive. I was a coach for several years to an amazing group of 7 girls. I know at least 5 went on to study engineering — at MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Harvey Mudd, and Carnegie-Mellon (I take full credit 8^). My daughter used to run away in fear when I turned on my power tools, but after FLL and then FIRST, she became a Mechanical Engineer!

        1. FLL has migrated to the Spike Prime system. It’s the successor to Mindstorms EV3. Really they’re just dropping the Mindstorms branding and focusing on the education market instead of consumer. So, basically Mindstorms is now rebranded to Spike Prime

    3. First Lego League was something I never got to do, but for around a year I did NXT-G on a Mindstorms set at this robotics place and watched the older kids doing larger comps in C#. It worked out in the end, I’m still doing First comps today.

  4. Buying a Mindstorms RCX 2.0 kit for $30-50 is probably the best way to get started. The USB receiver can be programmed on all modern operating systems with NQC:

    Please star this project! If we get 75 stars, we might be able to add it to the official Homebrew repository. :)

    Currently you can install it on macOS with:
    brew install davidperrenoud/nqc/nqc

  5. Oh! I had that yellow brick! Oh boy, I had a lot of fun. My parents even bought me the Mars Exploration kit, that had a webcam.

    I was a great gift. I really think it did shape my career.

    I remember a open source SDK called LegOS, and later BrickOS.

  6. I was gifted a Mindstorms RCX 1.0, three motors, and some sort of a base with a USB cable on it. Any suggestions on where to find the best info on these and if they’re even usable?

    P.S. In the late 60’s/early 70’s, Lego came out with a motorized part you could use as a base for things. I asked for one, and when we got to the store and saw it was US$13 (IIRC), it was denied. For sake of argument, let’s say it was 1972 – the CPI Inflation Calculator says that’d be ~US$92 today!

    1. I’d be surprised if they were broken, perhaps a battery leak and some flaking insulation on the cables (assuming you have some) but things are pretty tank like. The 9V motor of that era are really quite remarkable in how durable and powerful they are, though being 20 odd years old… If you have a 1.0 with the barrel jack you can power that from low voltage ac – its officially supposed to be 12Vac if memory serves. The original Lego software for them was for Win95/98 if memory serves, its good stuff for what it is though and I have had it running somehow on linux relatively recently (can’t remember the method I used now)…

      As for resources

      A great inspirational website, details for some of the advanced beyond Lego’s original intent ideas folks came up with and still hosts the original Lego SDK and some patches for that series. Make sure to check out the sensors tab as well.

    1. As Fridolin mentioned, check Fischertechnik. I love Lego, but problem with Mindstorms was that it uses 6-pin connectors and wires, and kids don’t see electric circuits. Fischertechnik uses simple wires with 2.5mm plugs, and it is easier fro kids to understand some basic stuff about electric circuits.

  7. Always wanted to get into Lego Mindstorms with the kids (back when), but was always seemed to expensive…. So never did.

    Seemed like a good training platform for fun robotic projects. Kids did get to experience some of this though when we took a trip to LegoLand in Kalafornia .

  8. When I was a college lecturer one of my colleagues bought eight sets of Lego Mindstorms as he thought he could use them to teach robotics. This was a good idea right up until the point he realised he wasn’t smart enough to use them, and they got passed to me to do something with them. He was an “ideas man” and not a “I can do stuff” kinda guy.

    Dick, if you’re still out there, here’s to posterity!

    1. A year or so ago i was given the equivalent of 3 full nxt sets with many many extra sensors, after market hitechnic stuff, extra bricks. Even a sensor development kit. Two full tubs of pitsco tetrix aluminum stuff. Motor controllers and high torque gear motors, servos, sensor interfaces…..I still gotta rebuild lithium packs for the brain bricks and come up with some sorta multi cell battery pack for the tetrix stuff. Basically a whole league’s worth of retired goods from when they switched to vex. This reminds me to get on the battery pack issues that got neglected due to moving…..My boy is ready age-wise to unleash on it 😁

  9. I’m kind of really sad as i just bought this MindStorm kit a month or two ago to give at Christmas, with the price I was hoping to have more time. With an old laptop, i’m afraid i will not be able to reinstall it later. I was a friendly interface for learning.

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