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Rubik's Cube: Puzzle Extraordinaire

By Andrea Campbell

This toy spawned contests of both speed and intelligence. Yes, a simple-looking cube dressed in primary-colored tiles was all the rage in the early 1980’s—everyone had to have one—the Rubik’s Cube. Learn more about this pop-culture phenomenon.

Rubik's Cube The gauge was simple: solve the puzzle in an hour, a decent and respectable amount of time. If you could crack it in 15 minutes, onlookers were impressed. Anyone who could speed dial the correct configuration is less than five minutes was deemed both a genius and, the arbiter of a great party trick.

The record set was by a Polish teenager named Michal Pleskowiez, who blasted records with an average solving time of 8.65 seconds. If you had no clue how to crack the Rubik’s Cube puzzle, you were not considered very smart.

Pretty Little Thing

The cube was 3 x 3 x 3-inches in a plastic square structure. Each side had nine colored squares in red, blue, yellow, orange, green and white. The object of the puzzle is straightforward: manipulate the larger cube in such a way that each of the six sides displays a single color.

To Market, To Market

Created by and named for sculptor and professor of architecture Ernö Rubik in 1974, it would be another six years before this “fad” would become a global phenomenon. Virtually everyone on the planet was eager to join the ranks of “Brainiacs” by solving it.

Trapped Behind the Curtain

Rubik’s Cube may have stayed hidden behind the Iron Curtain—a communist regime in Germany—had it not been for a doctor and businessman named Tibor Laczi, who discovered the game while on a trip to Budapest. He took it to the German Toy Fair in January 1979, but could interest no one in taking on the little puzzle. That is until he met Tom Kremer, a toy inventor who took the invention to the United States and sold the rights to Ideal, a toy company. It eventually won the German Game of the Year, a special reward.

By this time, the Cube was becoming a cultural phenomenon, spreading across the globe.

When it reached the U.S. and was unveiled in 1980, more than a million units were sold at $1.99.

Success Breeds Copycats

As is wont to happen with something that achieves groundbreaking success, the Cube was copied. Companies all over the world had knockoffs under such names as “Magic Square,” “Magic Box” and “Magic Cube.”

Of course, when the market had enough cubes, the Ideal Company had stacks of unsold boxes everywhere. Kremer was not ready to give up as readily, and he bought the rights back. In 1995, toy company OddsOn Products relaunched a whole new line of Rubik’s, including a new pyramid-shaped puzzle in addition to a Sudoku Rubik’s Cube and Pentamax, the world’s most difficult Rubik’s Cube. Back in the toy aisle, people started playing again.

Keys to Success

The world loved Rubik’s Cube and its offshoots for these reasons:

  • The puzzle was one piece with no parts to get lost
  • The inside mechanism allowed for forty-three quintillion possible combinations
  • The cost was amenable
  • It was easy to transport
  • It was always engaging

Inside Secret

If you smash open a Rubik’s Cube—a hammer and chisel ought to do it—you will see that each cube has a center. The tiles are secured in the center, but they never actually move. Only the corner cubes move up, down, left and right. According to the author Christopher Byrne, “ …the trick is to know which cubes can move where and how to get them all lined up.”

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Rubik’s Cube has been front-page news countless times in lots of newspapers. It has been featured on dozens of TV shows and as a prop in many movies, plus, there were nearly seventy books written about it (and handbooks on how-to solve it). It carried itself into the dictionary and was the impetus for a Saturday morning superhero, Rubik, the Amazing Cube.