Erno Rubik was an interior design instructor in Budapest in 1974 when he decided that the students in his “Form Studies” class—on the abstract properties of shape—might benefit from a physical model. With rubber bands, paper clips and wooden blocks, Rubik fashioned a fist-size cube from smaller cubes that could turn while still hewing to the whole.
The cube was built to symbolize symmetry, but it threw Rubik a curve: It was also a puzzle. Even a few twists made it difficult to return the small cubes to their starting positions. It was “surprising and deeply emotional,” Rubik tells Smithsonian, with “an inherent element of problem-solving that brought with it complexity, difficulty and experiential value.”
Forty years after its birth, the Rubik’s Cube still beguiles. It inspired a $5 million exhibit this year at New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center. And it received the ultimate Silicon Valley salute: a turn as a “doodle” on Google’s home page. No less a figure of the times than Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower, told journalists they’d find him at a Hong Kong hotel by looking for a dude with the cube.
The puzzle has insinuated itself so deeply into our culture that it’s easy to forget the story of its improbable birth and near deaths.
Rubik wasn’t a marketing savant in 1974, but a shy 29-year-old living with his parents in Communist Hungary. He tried to sell American toymakers on his doodad, but one after another balked (too cerebral, they thought) until a vice president at Ideal Toy Company in New York annoyed colleagues by twiddling one during a meeting. “It was making this clicking sound,” recalls former Ideal exec Stewart Sims. The company’s president turned and said, “What are you doing?”
Ideal, which rode the teddy bear to riches, decided to take a chance on the cube—if its inventor could prove it was solvable. Sims met Rubik in 1979 in the courtyard of a Budapest hotel. “He solved it in two minutes,” Sims recalls. Some 150 million sold from 1980 to 1982.
Against all odds, a plastic cube with color stickers came to rival Pac-Man and Duran Duran as an ’80s icon. It soon had its own TV show (ABC’s “Rubik, the Amazing Cube”), orthopedic symptoms (Rubik’s wrist, cubist’s thumb) and art movement (Rubik Cubism). Besotted mathematicians outdid one another formulating speed- solving algorithms. The magic cube, the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter gushed in Scientific American, was “a model and a metaphor for all that is profound and beautiful in science.”
Like all crazes, this one soon faded. Cubers—teenagers, mostly—played on in the shadows until a decade ago, when they found one another on the web and set up speed-cubing tournaments, now held in more than 50 countries. (The world record for fastest solve, set in 2013 by a Dutch teen: 5.55 seconds.)
Why does a middle-aged plastic puzzle with one right combination and 43 quintillion wrong ones still seduce in our digital age? Because it “talks to human universals” while remaining “languageless,” says Rubik. Mostly though, its appeal is “part of the mystery of the Cube itself.”