The first time you see one, you intuitively know what to do; but without instruction, it is almost impossible to solve. This fact defines the incredibly engaging yet infuriating invention that is the Rubik’s Cube.
Erno Rubik, the son of a poet and an aircraft engineer, was born in Budapest during World War II. He received his first degree in sculpture, and then studied architecture at the Hungarian University of Technology, where he remained as a professor after graduation.
In 1974, the 30-year-old Rubik continued to live with his mother in her small Budapest apartment, and occupied much of his free time creating geometric models in his room. He was teaching a special course on ‘form studies’, and set out to build a model that would help explain spatial relationships to his students. He first began tinkering with a wooden and paper cube, comprised of movable smaller ‘cubies’ and held together with rubber bands.
The bands quickly broke, but Rubik recognized the possibilities of the cube and proceeded to develop an internal mechanism that required no bands. He painstakingly cut and sanded 26 cubies, marked each side with a color, and assembled his contraption. It immediately fascinated him: “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.”
Upon making a series of turns, Rubik quickly realized that he did not know how to solve his own puzzle! “After a while I decided it was time to… 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 home?” He started with the corners and developed a system to put the pieces back in place, but it still took Rubik several months before he was first able to solve the cube.
The puzzle was well received by his students, and Rubik quickly realized the greater potential of his ‘Magic Cube’ (‘Buvuos Kocka’). He applied for a Hungarian patent in 1975, which was approved in early 1977. The cube appeared in Hungarian toy stores later that year.
Rubik was heavily influenced by artists and inventors Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and M.C. Escher, numerous philosophers and poets, and architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. Although marketed as a toy, Rubik always thought of the cube as art: “a mobile sculpture symbolizing stark contrasts of the human condition: bewildering problems and triumphant intelligence; simplicity and complexity; stability and dynamism; order and chaos.”
In this interview, Rubik explains more about how he designed the cube:
Despite Rubik’s lofty vision for the cube, he and the toy were initially stuck behind the Iron Curtain. By luck, German businessman and mathematician Tibor Laczi discovered the cube on a visit to a Hungarian cafe, where it was being played by his waitress. He bought the cube on the spot for $1, and approached Rubik with his plan to introduce it to the world.
“When Rubik first walked into the room I felt like giving him some money,” Laczi said. “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.”
Laczi took the toy to the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 1979, where he met British toy expert Tom Kremer. Kremer also saw the cube’s potential, and immediately negotiated a deal with the Ideal Toy Company. In 1980, the cube was rebranded as the ‘Rubik’s Cube’ and launched in toy stores internationally.
The cube took off instantly. In 1981, ‘You Can Do The Cube’ by Patrick Bossert sold 1.5 million copies. The first International Rubik’s Championship, an enthusiastic gathering of ‘Cubic Rubes’ (fans of the puzzle), was held in 1982. The puzzle has even spawned a new sport, Speedcubing, where the current world record stands at just above 5 seconds.
The Rubik’s Cube has influenced art movements (Rubik Cubism), has been taken into space, and even had its own television show.
As for Erno Rubik, he became the first self-made millionaire from the communist block. He went on to establish a foundation to help promising Hungarian inventors, and continues to run the Rubik Studio which designs puzzles, toys, and furniture.
1 in 7 people on the planet has played the Rubik’s Cube. At an estimated 350 million sales over the past 40 years, it is the bestselling toy of all time.