The History of the Rubik's Cube

A Small Cube That Obsessed the World

Rubik's Cube Challenge Contestant
Hungarian contestant Zoltanh Labas competes in the First Rubik's Cube World Championship, Budapest, Hungary, June 5, 1982. Labas placed third with a time of 24.29 seconds. Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

The Rubik's Cube is a cube-shaped puzzle that has nine, smaller squares on each side. When taken out of the box, each side of the cube has all the squares the same color. The goal of the puzzle is to return each side to a solid color after you have turned it a few times. Which seems simple enough -- at first.

After a few hours, most people who try the Rubik's Cube realize that they are both mesmerized by the puzzle and yet no closer to solving it.

The Rubik's Cube, which was first created in 1974 but not released onto the world market until 1980, quickly became an obsession around the world in the 1980s.

Who Created the Rubik's Cube?

Ernö Rubik is the one to praise or to blame, depending on how frustrated you get with the Rubik's Cube. Ernö Rubik was born on July 13, 1944 in Budapest, Hungary. Rubik combined the divergent talents of his parents (his father was an engineer who designed gliders and his mother was an artist and a poetess) to become both a sculptor and an architect.

Fascinated with the concept of space, Rubik spent his free time -- while working as a professor at the Academy of Applied Arts and Design in Budapest -- designing puzzles that would make his students think in new ways about three-dimensional geometry.

In the spring of 1974, just shy of his 30th birthday, Rubik envisioned a small cube, with each side constructed of moveable squares.

By the fall of 1974, his friends had helped him create the first wooden model of his idea.

At first, Rubik just enjoyed watching how the squares moved as he turned one section and then another. However, when he attempted to put the colors back again, he ran into difficulty. Oddly entranced by the challenge, Rubik spent a month turning the cube this way and that way until he finally realigned the colors.

When he handed other people the cube and they too had the same fascinated reaction, he realized he might have a fun toy puzzle on his hands.

The Rubik's Cube Deputs in Stores

In 1975, Rubik made an arrangement with the Hungarian toy-manufacturer Politechnika for them to mass produce the cube. In 1977, the multi-colored cube first appeared in toy stores in Budapest as the Büvös Kocka (the "Magic Cube"). Although the Magic Cube was a success in Hungary, getting Hungary, a Communist country, to agree to allow the Magic Cube out to the rest of the world was a bit of a challenge.

By 1979, Hungary agreed to share the cube and Rubik signed with the Ideal Toy Corporation. As Ideal Toys prepared to market the Magic Cube to the West, they decided to rename the cube. After considering several names, they settled on calling the toy puzzle "Rubik's Cube." The first Rubik's Cubes appeared in Western stores in 1980.

A World Obsession

Rubik's Cubes instantaneously became an international sensation. Everyone wanted one. It appealed to youngsters as well as adults. There was something obsessive about the little cube.

A Rubik's Cube had six sides, with each side a different color (traditionally blue, green, orange, red, white, and yellow).

Each side of a traditional Rubik's Cube consisted of nine squares, in a three by three grid pattern. Of the 54 squares on the cube, 48 of them could move (the centers on each side were stationary).

Rubik's Cubes were simple, elegant, and surprisingly difficult to solve. By 1982, more than 100 million Rubik's Cubes had been sold and most had yet to be solved.

Solving the Rubik's Cube

While millions of people were stumped, frustrated, and yet still obsessed with their Rubik's Cubes, rumors began to circulate as to how to solve the puzzle. With more than 43 quintillion possible configurations (43,252,003,274,489,856,000 to be exact), hearing that "the stationary pieces are the starting point for the solution" or "solve one side at a time" just was not enough information for the layman to solve the Rubik's Cube.

In response to the massive demands of the public for a solution, several dozen books were published in the early 1980s, each spouting easy ways to solve your Rubik's Cube. (Nearly 30 years later, my mom still has her copy safely on a bookshelf "just in case" she may still want to solve her Rubik's Cube.)

While some Rubik's Cube owners were so frustrated that they began smashing open their cubes for a peek inside (they hoped to discover some inner secret that would help them solve the puzzle), other Rubik's Cube owners were setting speed records.

Starting in 1982, the first annual International Rubik's Championships were held in Budapest, where people competed to see who could solve the Rubik's Cube the fastest. These competitions are places for "cubers" to show off their "speed cubing." As of 2015, the the current world record is 5.25 seconds, held by Collin Burns of the United States.

An Icon

Whether a Rubik's Cube fan was a self-solver, speed cuber, or a smasher, they had all become obsessed with the small, simple-looking puzzle. During the height of its popularity, Rubik's Cubes could be found everywhere -- at school, on buses, in movie theaters, and even at work. The design and colors of Rubik's Cubes also appeared on t-shirts, posters, and board games.

In 1983, Rubik's Cube even had its own television show, called Rubik, the Amazing Cube. In this kids' show, a talking, flying Rubik's Cube worked with the aid of three children to foil the evil plans of the show's villain.

To date, more than 300 million Rubik's Cubes have been sold, making it one of the most popular toys of the 20th century.