The man behind the puzzle that 99% can’t solve

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By Myles BurkeFeatures correspondent

Getty Images 1970s image of Ern Rubik with his invention, the Rubik's CubeGetty Images

(Credit: Getty Images)

On this day in 1975, the Hungarian academic Ernő Rubik applied for a patent on his invention. Little did he know that his ingenious teaching tool would become an iconic global phenomenon.

With its bright iconic design, plus the fact that it transcends languages, ages and backgrounds, and doesn’t even require instructions, it is perhaps not surprising the Rubik’s Cube became a best-selling global phenomenon. Not to mention that it is portable, and can be solved in countless ways.

But initially, Ernő Rubik did not realise quite what he had on his hands when he invented his ingenious, confounding colour-matching puzzle.

He did not even think about whether the cube – that would ultimately make his name famous the world over – would be successful, he told the BBC’s Terry Wogan in 1986.

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“I was not worried because I never decided to do that, that was nothing that I was running for,” he said. He had originally not devised his cube as a toy, but as a teaching tool for his students.

In 1974, he was working as a professor of architecture at the Budapest College of Applied Arts. Believing that the best way to teach his students was to show them, he wanted to create something they could play with to get them thinking creatively about geometric forms and spatial relationships.

Getty Images The cube was the invention of Ernő Rubik, an academic working behind the Iron Curtain in communist Hungary (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

The cube was the invention of Ernő Rubik, an academic working behind the Iron Curtain in communist Hungary (Credit: Getty Images)

His aim 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 also, importantly, it would challenge them to persevere when faced with a complex, frustrating puzzle.

“First of all you must be patient, it’s very useful to solve a problem, then you need some spatial memory, three-dimensional memory,” he said on the talk show, Wogan. “To memorise which congregation you are and where the pieces are and so on… If we close our eyes, we know, we remember, and not for a picture only but the meaning of the picture.”

It is estimated that by 1982, more than 100 million Rubik’s Cubes had been sold.

His prototype was a wooden six-sided cube composed of smaller cubes. He initially tried to drill holes in the cubes to link them together with rubber bands but it continually fell apart. So, he designed a hidden mechanism that held the cube in place, while allowing its individual smaller cubes to twist and turn. He added a solid colour to each side of the cube to make the movement visible.

Then he twisted it, jumbling the colours and tried to restore the cube to its original state, where each face displayed a single colour.

The first time it took the best part of a month for him to do it. Making him the first person to solve the Rubik’s Cube. It is estimated only 1% of people can solve the puzzle without any help.

Watch archive video: Rubik’s Cube mania dominates 1980s

He conceded to Wogan that he was not as fast as he once was.

“I’m not very fast, if I am in practice I can do one minute or something like that, but I am not practising on it right now, years before I was much more faster. I’m not in condition.”

Therein lies the appeal of his cube. It is deceptively simple, incredibly addictive but also maddeningly frustrating to actually do.

He tried his prototype on his students, allowing them to work out their own solutions, and they loved it. On the back of its popularity among them, he decided in January 1975 to apply for a Hungarian patent for his “Magic Cube”.

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Due to manufacturing restrictions in the planned economy of communist Hungary at the time, for the first few years the puzzle’s main enthusiasts were designers, architects and mathematicians within the country.

It was when it debuted at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 1979, and was picked up by the Ideal Toy Corporation, that it really took off.

In 1980, the renamed “Rubik’s Cube” began to be sold internationally, and it took the toy market by storm, captivating people of all ages.

Global challenge

Word about it quickly spread, with millions of people worldwide taking up the challenge, which in turn prompted a flood of books telling people how they could actually solve it. It began cropping up everywhere, and international competitions were held, sparking a craze for competitive “speedcubing”, which continues to this day.

It is estimated that by 1982, more than 100 million Rubik’s Cubes had been sold, with countless other counterfeit versions also being flogged to meet the public’s demand for the toy.

During the height of its popularity in the early 1980s, nowhere seemed free of the Rubik’s Cube craze. They adorned t-shirts and posters, featured in songs, and the cube even had its own TV cartoon adventure series, Rubik, the Amazing Cube, featuring a flying, talking version of the puzzle.

In History

In History is a series which uses the BBC’s unique audio and video archive to explore historical events that still resonate today

In 1982 the noun Rubik’s Cube entered the Oxford English Dictionary and the cube earned a place as a permanent exhibit in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

The famous brain teaser is no longer the global craze it once was, yet its enduring appeal and its impact on popular culture linger on.

It continues to crop up in art and sculpture, and can be seen in films like Being John Malkovich, WALL-E and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It was featured as a Google Doodle and in the Spice Girls’ Viva Forever music video. It is name-checked in TV shows from Family Guy to Law and Order and The Big Bang Theory. There is even a Netflix documentary, The Speed Cubers, about the friendship between two of the stars in the world of competitive cubing.

Rubik’s Cube inventor: ‘I made something more than anybody else’

Rubik’s Cubes are still being sold, with committed fans setting new records all the time, solving the cube blindfolded, underwater, while skydiving or even while juggling.

Due to the number of knock-off versions over the years, it is difficult to know the precise figures Rubik’s Cubes sold, but estimates put it at more than 400 million to date. Ernő himself went on to set up a foundation to support promising young inventors in Hungary, and established his own studio designing furniture and games, such as the Rubik’s Snake. But nothing else he created was the phenomenon that the cube was.

For him it wasn’t about that, though. He told Wogan that he was still driven by the same impulse that made him come up with his best-selling cube.

“I like to do my best all the time as a designer and solving design problems is the best thing. So, it does not depend on how successful it will be.”

In History is a series which uses the BBC’s unique audio and video archive to explore historical events that still resonate today.

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