Rubik’s Cube: The best puzzle ever?

The six-sided toy is one of the best-selling brainteasers of all time. Jonathan Glancey explores how it came to be and why it is still so popular.

Here is a fascinating and enjoyable experiment you can try out on people of almost any age around the world. Without saying a word, hand them a Rubik’s Cube. Without prompting, and without instruction, the majority will try to make each of the Cube’s six faces – each formed of nine movable ‘cubelets’ – into one solid colour: traditionally, white, red, blue, orange, green and yellow. The puzzle of the Rubik’s Cube is solved when all sides display a single colour.

It might seem easy and even rather obvious. Yet since 1980, when the Rubik’s Cube was first marketed by the Ideal Toy Corp – a New York company founded by Morris Michtom, a Russian-Jewish émigré and his American wife, Rose, after they had invented another famous best-seller, the Teddy Bear – this intriguing plastic Cube, has perplexed millions of people. Although some give up on the attempt, many more have been determined to solve this complex, three-dimensional mathematical puzzle. There is even a loosely associated international group of Speedcubers whose members aim to beat the world Rubik’s Cube solving record. The current record, set last year, is held – according to the World Cube Association – by Mats Valk of the Netherlands, with a time of just 5.55 seconds. Mats was 16 years old at the time.

That’s just the obvious Rubik’s Cube record. In 2012, Fakhri Raihann, an Indonesian schoolboy, solved a Cube with his feet in 27.93 highly entertaining seconds, while the one-handed record – 9.03 seconds – belongs to an 18-year-old Australian, Feliks Zemdegs. All these records can be seen, performed live, on YouTube. It is intriguing to witness the extent to which the Rubik’s Cube – often associated in popular culture with the 1980s – has retained its appeal and mystique over so many years and especially into the age of highly sophisticated computer games and digital technology.

When square is cool

Because it fits so neatly into the human hand, and because it can be solved in so many ways –this innocuous, but brightly coloured, plastic cube has become as timeless in its own way as age-old board games like chess, backgammon and Go. Unlike these games, though, a Rubik's Cube is designed to be played solo. Even still, players have found ways of making the solving of the puzzle a team event. Although precise figures are unobtainable, it seems that more than 400m Rubik’s Cubes have been sold to date, making it one of the most popular puzzles of all time.

A fundamental part of the Cube’s appeal is the way in which the ‘cubelets’ move around one another, and across all six sides, so easily. In fact, it was the shaping and perfecting of this hidden mechanism that drove Ernő Rubik, a Hungarian architect, artist and academic, to create what was originally called the Magic Cube in the first place. At the time, Rubik was working in the Department of Interior Design at the Academy of Applied Arts and Crafts in Budapest. He was 30 when he invented his Cube in 1974. Three years later, it went on sale in Hungary. These early Cubes  were twice the weight of the later Rubik’s Cube and, because of commercial restrictions placed on private companies in communist Hungary, it seemed as if just a few examples of this clever and enchanting invention would ever be sold.

This extraordinary Hungarian toy story, however, was about to turn a magic page. In early 1980, Tibor Laczi, a Hungarian-born German businessman and amateur mathematician, took a Magic Cube to the Nuremberg Toy Fair. Laczi had been hugely impressed with the puzzle and had arranged to meet Rubik in Budapest before his Nuremberg trip.

“When Rubik first walked into the room”, he said, “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”.

Among those Laczi showed the Magic Cube at Nuremberg was Tom Kremer, a Transylvanian-born inventor – and survivor of the Nazi German Bergen-Belsen concentration camp – who persuaded Ideal Toys to invest in a million improved Magic Cubes for the world market. Both Laczi’s and Kremer’s instincts were spot-on. The re-named Rubik’s Cube sold like proverbial hot cakes and soon made Ernő Rubik the richest private individual in communist Hungary.

Cube conquers globe

Suddenly, the Rubik’s Cube was everywhere, a phenomenon that was at once a toy, a game, a designer object and a source of global fascination. Since 1980, the Rubik’s Cube has been featured in films from The Amazing Spider-Man and Being John Malkovich to The Machinist and WALL-E. It has also become a way of describing other designed objects, including modern buildings, that have something not so much of the look as of the interlocking complexity of the Rubik’s Cube.

The Rubik’s Cube is an object we collectively love and there are, perhaps inevitably, collectors of early models, each dreaming of finding and owning a pre-1980 Magic Cube made in communist Hungary.

While sales of the Cube itself continue to flourish, Ernő Rubik runs his own Budapest studio, inventing and making games and furniture as well as running his own foundation dedicated to helping aspiring Hungarian inventors and designers. Meanwhile, the global band of Speedcubers continues to go to any length to establish new records with this memerising and perenially popular design, like solving the Cube in the fewest possible moves, or solving the Cube blindfolded and even solving the Cube underwater in a single breath. Now that really is the stuff not just of ingenuity and mathematics, but of conjuring shows and, yes, of decidedly magic cubes.

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