The History of the Rubik's Cube

2021.01.29.

"The Cube" is one of the most popular and difficult puzzles ever invented. There are 43 quintillion wrong moves....and only 1 right answer. Solving the puzzle in the least number of moves means the use of "God's Algorithm." So let's have a look at the history of this colourful and complex puzzle and its inventor, Erno Rubik

Erno Rubik's Early Life

Erno Rubik was born during World War II in Budapest, the Hungarian capital. His father was an aircraft designer who had a company that manufactured gliders. His mother was a poet. Rubik studied art and sculpture during his college years. Once he graduated, he decided to learn architecture and he enrolled at the Budapest Academy of Applied Arts and Design. And he never left the college, staying on to work as a teacher of interior design.

Origins of the Cube

The cube was never designed with the idea of making a complex toy. The idea behind it came about because Rubik was obsessed with finding a means of modeling 3D movement for his students. It was a structural design problem. "How could the blocks move independently without falling apart?" he asked himself. To do this he used blocks of cubes made from paper and wood. Everything was held together with paperclips, glue, and elastic bands. The first cube created, he called “Bűvös kocka," or Magic Cube.

In his Rubik's Cube, 26 individual cubes form one large cube. These smaller cubes are referred to as "Cubies". Each layer of the large cube has 9 cubies, and all can be twisted and move independently. Any 3 squares in a row can join another side of the cube. After much experimentation using elastic bands, Rubik found the solution to holding all the cubes together was by carefully carving their shape. He hand-carved the initial cubies and then assembled them. After marking each side with a different colour, it was time to start twisting.

Not a Toy


Rubik's initial attraction to inventing the Cube was not in producing the best selling toy puzzle in history. The structural design problem interested Rubik; he asked, "How could the blocks move independently without falling apart?" In Rubik's Cube, twenty-six individual little cubes or "cubies" make up the big Cube. Each layer of nine cubies can twist and the layers can overlap. Any three squares in a row, except diagonally, can join a new layer. Though Rubik's initial attempt to use elastic bands failed, his solution was to have the blocks hold themselves together by their shape. Rubik's hand carved and assembled the little cubies together. He marked each side of the big Cube with adhesive paper of a different colour and started twisting.

What is the way home?

The first cube was made in 1974. Rubik was 29 years old and had discovered that returning the cube back to it's original form was much harder. As he said, "It was wonderful, to see how, after only a few turns, the colours became mixed, apparently in a random fashion. It was tremendously satisfying to watch this colour 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 home?"

At first, he theorised that just randomly twisting the cubes would take a lifetime to return the puzzle to it's original form. In this he was correct. But through a process of slow deductions, Rubik began working on a solution starting with the corners. By aligning these first, he discovered that a certain sequence of moves could solve the puzzle. All in all, it took him just under one month to finally solve the first Rubik's Cube.

Hungarian Patent

In January of 1975, Rubik applied for a patent at the Hungarian Patent Office. He called his invention a “spatial logic toy.” Two years later, the patent was approved and toy production started in earnest. The cube would have remained in obscurity because Hungary was still behind the Iron Curtain and toy production was very low on the agenda. One day, a Hungarian businessman called Tibor Laczi was enjoying a coffee in one of the capital's many cafes, when he spied a waiter playing with the cube. Being an amateur mathematician himself, he was immediately impressed. The very next day, he approached the state trading company, Konumex, and got permission to market the device to the West. 

Tibor Laczi recalls his first meeting Erno Rubik: "When Rubik first walked into the room I felt like giving him some money,'' he says. ''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 Nuremberg Toy Fair

Laczi took the toy to the International Toy Fair in 1979. Though he wasn't an official exhibitor, he simply walked around the fair, playing with the cube. This caught the eye of the British toy expert, Tom Kremer. Kremer was astounded by the toy and bought the concept to the Ideal Toys Company in the US. He was later instrumental in arranging the first order of 1 million cubes with the company.

It would later go on to sell over 450 million units with over 20 versions.

Wildly Successful

Initially, Erno Rubik was shocked at the puzzle's popularity, stating that he was amazed “it found its way to people whom nobody would ever have thought might be attracted to it.” By the early 1980s, the cube was a massive worldwide hit. In March 1981, the Rubik's Cube appeared on the front cover of Scientific America, and the Nobel Prize winning scientist Douglas Hofstadter, called it “one of the most amazing things ever invented for teaching mathematical ideas.” Helping sales was the fact that the cube was constantly appearing on TV ads as well as having its own animated TV show, called "Rubik, the Amazing Cube."

Because the cube wasn't patented internationally within a year of receiving its Hungarian patent, the Hungarian Patent office refused to give it an international patent. Ideal Toy wanted to copyright a name for the toy and finally settled on using its inventors name, which also allowed them to skirt the Hungarian patent issue. 

The First 'Red' Millionaire

Thanks to the success of the cube, Erno Rubik became Hungary's first millionaire. During the eighties, sales were steady, only dropping off at the end of the decade. Though declared a "fad" by the New York Times, it still sells well today. In June 1982, a Vietnamese student from Los Angeles named Minh Thai, became the faster player at the world championships which were held in Budapest. His time was a mere 22.95 seconds. Today, the world record stands at staggering 4.75 seconds! 
 

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