It has one correct answer and forty-three quintillion wrong ones. It can be solved in 25 seconds or less. Its inventor became the first self-made millionaire from the communist bloc. Rubik’s Cube, or Magic Cube as it was known in its native Hungary, was invented in 1974 but took it took several years before the craze hit and swept throughout America. In 30 years, over 300 million Rubik’s Cubes had been sold.
What is a Rubik’s Cube?
The Rubik’s Cube is a 3-D mechanical puzzle that the player twists and turns to return all four sides of the cube back to their original color. A pivot mechanism in the cube allows each face to turn independently. Internal interlocking plastic pieces prevent the puzzle from being pulled apart while still allowing each row of cublets to independently turn. Each of the six center pieces pivots on a fastener held by the center piece, a sort of 3D cross. A spring between each screw head and its corresponding piece tensions the piece inward, so that collectively, the whole assembly remains contained, but can still be easily manipulated.
The cube measures 2 ¼ inches on each side and consists of twenty-six unique miniature cubes called cubies or cubelets. The 3 x 3 x 3 arrangement gives you three rows of three smaller cubies in a row for a total of nine cubies on each face. Each row of three cubies can be twisted to join another row. In a classic Rubik’s Cube, each of the six faces is covered with colored stickers. Each face of the cube may be colored white, red, green, blue, orange, and yellow. The puzzle starts with each side having cubies of the same color. Once the puzzle is twisted and the colored pieces mixed up, it is virtually impossible to return the puzzle back to its original state.
The Invention of the Rubik’s Cube
In the mid 1970’s, Erno Rubik worked at the Department of Interior Design at the Academy of Applied Arts and Crafts in Budapest, Hungary where he taught students the basics of interior design. His mother was a poet and his father an aircraft engineer, Rubik had a vivid imagination and an engineer’s sharp and inquisitive mind. As a teacher, Rubik liked to use hands-on methods of teaching and often used models made of plastic, wood, or paper to teach spatial relationships and challenge his students. He had often pondered the invention of a teaching tool that would help students understand 3D objects and their relationship to each other. “How could the blocks move independently without falling apart?” The solution to how to hold the blocks together, while still allowing them to move, proved intriguing.
His initial attempt at constructing a cube used rubber bands to hold the cublets together. The design allowed rotating of the pieces, but the movement of the pieces was too difficult. He began to tinker with a plastic interlocking design. Using hand carved plastic cublets each covered with colored adhesive paper, he designed the locking mechanism that allowed the cube to hold itself together while still allowing movement of each of the rows of cublets. Once the sides were twisted and the colors mixed, Rubrik was intrigued at how difficult it was to get the colors back together and in fact, initially felt he may never get the colors back to their original positions. As Rubrik explained,
“It was wonderful, to see how, after only a few turns, the colors became mixed, apparently in random fashion. It was tremendously satisfying to watch this color parade. Like after a nice walk when you have seen many lovely sights you decide to go home, after a while I decided it was time to go home, let us put the cubes back in order. And it was at that moment that I came face to face with the big challenge. What is the way back home?”
After much work, he had the puzzle solved within a month.
The Public Begins to Play with Rubik’s Cube
Rubik took his Magic Cube to classes and allowed the students to play with it before and after class. He noted how keenly interested the students became with the device. Once a student got their hands on the cube, they would not let it go. He decided to release the product as a toy and received a Hungarian patent for the Magic Cube in 1974. In 1977 the Magic Cube (or Buvuos Kocka in Hungary) began appearing on the shelves of toy shops in and around Budapest. By 1978, the Magic Cube had spread throughout Budapest and could be found in homes, offices, and schools. Still sales of the Rubik’s Cube were sluggish until Hungarian businessman Tibor Laczi discovered the Magic Cube.
While having a coffee, Laczi noticed a waiter playing with the toy. Laczi, an amateur mathematician, was impressed with the contraption and soon discovered that it had been developed by a teacher named Rubik. He explained his first impressions of Rubrik as this:
”When Rubik first walked into the room, I felt like giving him some money. ‘He looked like a beggar. He was terribly dressed, and he had a cheap Hungarian cigarette hanging out of his mouth. But I knew I had a genius on my hands. I told him we could sell millions.”
The Rubik’s Cube Head to the West
With Laczi’s help, the toy made its international debut at the toy fairs of London, Paris, Nuremberg and New York in January and February 1980. Laczi did not set up an exhibit for the boy but instead roamed the fairs grounds playing with the unique toy. There Tom Kremer, a British toy expert, saw the cube and thought it was the wonder of the world. Together, Kremer and Laczi, representing Ideal Toy, negotiated with the communist party, largely ignorant of free markets, to allow the toy to be sold in the West. The communist party eventually agreed, and they arranged to sell one million cubes to Ideal Toy. The Rubik Cube was headed to the United States.
After its international debut and permission to sell the toy in the United States, the development of the Magic Cube towards the toy shop shelves of the West was briefly halted so that it could be manufactured to Western safety and packaging specifications. During which time, a lighter Cube was produced. At the same time, Ideal Toys decided to rename it. “The Gordian Knot” and “Inca Gold” were considered, but the company finally decided on the simplest solution – Rubik’s Cube.
The Rubik Cube was an outstanding success and Erno Rubik became the first self-made millionaire from the communist bloc. “Cube Rubes” formed fan clubs and held contests to see who could solve the puzzle the fastest. A 16-year-old from Los Angeles could solve the puzzle in 22.95 seconds. A mesmerized public, from bankers to kids, could not put the toy down. The craze lasted from 1980 to 1983. By 2010, over 350 million Rubik Cubes had been sold around the world making it the top selling puzzle game.
Image CreditsHungary version of Rubik's Cube 1982 via Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation with usage type - Creative Commons License
Original Buvos Kocka Rubik's Cube package via Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation with usage type - Product photo (Fair Use)
Hungary patent for Rubik's Cube via Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation with usage type - Creative Commons License
Original Rubik's Cube prototype via Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation with usage type - Creative Commons License
Rubiks_cube_solved via Wikipedia with usage type - Creative Commons License
Rubik's Cube partially disassembled via Wikipedia with usage type - Creative Commons License
Packaging of Rubik's Cube, Toy of the year 1980 – Ideal Toy Corp., made in Hungary via Wikipedia with usage type - Creative Commons License