The History of the Rubik's Cube

How a Small Cube Became a Worldwide Obsession

Rubik's Cube Challenge Contestant, Zoltanh Labas.

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 mesmerized by the puzzle and yet no closer to solving it. The toy, which was first created in 1974 but not released onto the world market until 1980, quickly became a fad when it hit stores. 

Who Created the Rubik's Cube?

Ernö Rubik is the one to praise or to blame, depending on how mad the Rubik's Cube has driven you. 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 open his students' minds to new ways of thinking 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 toy puzzle on his hands that could really be worth some money.

The Rubik's Cube Debuts in Stores

In 1975, Rubik made an arrangement with the Hungarian toy-manufacturer Politechnika, who would 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's Communist leadership 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 about the little cube that captured everyone's full attention.

The first produced Rubik's Cube had six sides, each a different color (traditionally blue, green, orange, red, white, and yellow). Each side had 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 by the public for a solution, several dozen books were published in the early 1980s, each spouting easy ways to solve your 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. Now helad all ove the world, these competitions are places for "cubers" to show off their "speed cubing." In 2018, the current world record was set at 3.47 seconds, held by Yusheng Du of China.

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.

Mathematicians have tried to determine how many moves are needed to solve a completely jumbled up cube: in 2008, it was announced as 22, but the computations to get there took decades of processor time. In 2019, Chinese topologists reported a way to map the mechanism—results that may have implications in other multi-structure mechanisms from laser printing to deep space exploration aircraft.

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

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The History of the Rubik's Cube." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2023, April 5). The History of the Rubik's Cube. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The History of the Rubik's Cube." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).