Playmobil was invented by German inventor Hans Beck (1929–2009), who is often called "The Father of Playmobil". Beck received training as a cabinetmaker but was also an avid hobbyist of model airplanes, a product he pitched to the company geobra Brandstätter. The owner of the company, Horst Brandstätter, asked him to develop toy figures for children instead.
Beck spent three years from 1971 to 1974 developing what became Playmobil. Beck conducted research that allowed him to develop a toy that would not be too complex but would nevertheless be flexible. He felt that too much flexibility would get in the way of children's imaginations, and too much rigidity would cause frustration. The toy he came up with, at 7.5 cm tall, fit in a child's hand and its facial design was based on children's drawings - a large head, a big smile, and no nose. "I would put the little figures in their hands without saying anything about what they were," Beck remarked. "They accepted them right away ... They invented little scenarios for them. They never grew tired of playing with them.
The 1973 oil crisis made it possible for Playmobil to be considered a viable product. The rising oil prices imposed on geobra Brandstätter, for whom Beck worked as Head of Development, demanded that the company turn to products that required less solid plastic material than the hula hoops and other large plastic items the company had been producing.
In 1974, the company put the first sets of knights, Native Americans, and construction workers on show in its display rooms. Initial visitors were reluctant to accept the toy. Nevertheless, the toy was shown at the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg, which was taking place that same year. A Dutch firm agreed to buy a whole year's production.
By the end of the year, geobra Brandstätter had achieved sales of 3 million Deutschmarks with Playmobil - one-sixth of the company's total sales. Playmobil began to be sold worldwide in 1975, and has remained a popular toy ever since.
Playmobil has been a successful toy line for more than 40 years and they have been a major competitor to Lego toys. Examples of directly competing toys in both their product line are not hard to find. Within the limitations of the Playmobil toy world, the Playmobil toys are usually realistic, and present accurate representations of arms, armor, costumes, and tools from a recognizable time period. Especially notable for their fine attention to detail are the modern construction and city life toys (cars, cranes, fire-engines, trains, boats, etc.).