Classic, brilliant design that transcends languages, ages and educational levels. You don’t even need instructions. And it is still portable and can be solved in countless ways.
For all this, it is not surprising that the Rubik’s Cube has become a sales phenomenon all over the world.
But its creator, Hungarian academic Ernő Rubik, didn’t initially realize what he had in his hands when he invented his ingenious confusing and colorful puzzle.
He didn’t even imagine whether the cube that would immortalize his name would be successful, as he declared in 1986 to BBC TV presenter Terry Wogan (1938-2016).
“I didn’t worry because I never decided to do it, it wasn’t anything I was looking for,” he said.
Originally, he did not envision the cube as a toy, but as a teaching tool for his students.
In 1974, Rubik was working as an architecture professor at the College of Applied Arts in Budapest, Hungary.
He believed that the best way to teach something to his students was to show it to them. And he wanted to create something they could play with to think creatively about geometric shapes and spatial relationships.
Manufacturing restrictions imposed in communist-era Hungary meant that Ernő Rubik’s invention was only mass-produced in the early 1980s.
His goal was to make something tactile and mobile, that was simple enough for his students to understand, but contained some kind of problem to be solved. And, most importantly, it challenged them to persevere when they encountered a complex and frustrating puzzle.
“First of all, you need to be patient, it’s very useful in solving a problem,” Rubik told the BBC. “Then you need some spatial memory, three-dimensional memory.”
“To memorize what formation you have, where the pieces are and so on… If we close our eyes, we know, we remember, not just an image, but the meaning of the image.”
Rubik’s prototype was a wooden cube with six sides made up of smaller cubes.
Initially, he tried drilling the cubes to connect them with rubber bands, but they kept coming loose.
So he designed a hidden mechanism that held the cube in place, allowing the smaller individual cubes to rotate. And he added a solid color to each side of the cube, to make the movement visible.
He would then rotate, mixing the colors, and attempt to restore the cube to its original state, with each face showing a single color.
The first time, it took him almost a month to do it — and he became the first person to solve the Rubik’s Cube. It is estimated that only 1% of people can solve the puzzle without help.
Rubik confessed to the BBC in 1986 that he was no longer as fast as he used to be.
“I’m not very fast,” he declared. “When I’m practicing, I can do it in about a minute, but I’m not practicing now. A few years ago, I was a lot faster. I’m not in good shape.”
This is where the Rubik’s Cube attracts people. It is deceptively simple, incredibly addictive and maddeningly frustrating.
Rubik tried out the prototype with his students, letting them develop their own solutions. They loved it.
And, following its popularity among students, Rubik decided to file a patent application for his “Magic Cube” in Hungary in January 1975.
Due to manufacturing restrictions in Hungary’s communist-era planned economy, the puzzle’s main enthusiasts in its early years were the country’s designers, architects and mathematicians.
This lasted until 1979, when the Rubik’s Cube was presented at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in Germany. American manufacturer Ideal Toy Corporation adopted the toy and it eventually took off.
In 1980, the Magic Cube began to be sold internationally under the name “Rubik’s Cube”, taking the market by surprise and captivating people of all ages.
News of the new toy spread quickly. Millions of people around the world took up the challenge, which soon spawned a multitude of books telling people how to solve the puzzle.
The Rubik’s Cube started appearing everywhere. International competitions emerged, which brought the mania of trying to solve the toy faster and faster. The charm remains to this day.
It is estimated that, by 1982 alone, more than 100 million Rubik’s cubes had been sold, not counting the unofficial versions that flooded the market to meet public demand for the toy.
At the height of their popularity in the early 1980s, no one seemed to be free from the Rubik’s Cube craze. They adorned t-shirts and posters and were mentioned in songs. The cube even had its own cartoon on American TV —”Rubik, the Amazing Cube“ (“Rubik, the incredible cube”, in free translation) — starring a version of the toy that spoke and flew.
In 1983, “Rubik’s Cube” entered the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language and the cube gained a permanent display location at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in the United States.
Nowadays, the famous puzzle is no longer the global craze it was decades ago. But its solid appeal and impact on popular culture remain.
The Rubik’s Cube continues to be an object of art and sculptures. He can be seen in films and animations, such as “Being John Malkovich” (1999), “WALL-E” (2008) and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018).
The toy has also been a Doodle on the Google search engine and appeared in the music video for Viva Forever, by the Spice Girls.
The cube is mentioned in TV series ranging from “Family Guy” to “Law and Order” and “The Big Bang Theory.” And there is even a documentary on Netflix, “Magos do Cubo” (2020), about the friendship between two stars from the world of Rubik’s cube competitions.
The Rubik’s Cube is still sold today. It has dedicated fans who set new records all the time by solving the puzzle blindfolded, underwater, skydiving and even juggling.
Due to the number of unofficial versions released over the years, it is difficult to know the exact numbers of Rubik’s Cubes sold around the world to date. There are estimates of more than 400 million units.
Ernő Rubik created a foundation to support promising young people in the field of inventions in Hungary. And he formed his own furniture and game design studio, like Rubik’s Snake. But nothing he created became a cube-like phenomenon.
But this was not his goal. He told the BBC he was still driven by the same impulse that made him create his blockbuster hit.
“I always like to do my best as a designer and solving design problems is the best thing I do. Therefore, it doesn’t depend on the size of success.”
This text was originally published on BBC Culture (in English) and BBC News Brasil.