National Post (Latest Edition)
Rubik’s Cube’s colourful twists and turns still captivate.
At 40, rubik’s cube is Frustrating and Fascinating a NEW legion of Pandemic-era Fans
It’s 40 years old, has sold 450 million copies and has 43 quintillion possible configurations. And it’s probably driven almost every one of us just a little batty at some point in our lives.
It’s no riddle: it’s the Rubik’s Cube.
The multicoloured square gadget that launched a million frustrations twisted its way into global consciousness in 1980 after starting life in the Hungarian Patent Office in 1975 as a “spatial logic toy.”
Invented by the architect, design professor and sculptor, Erno Rubik, to help teach advanced algebraic theory, the first prototype was cobbled together with wood, paper clips, rubber bands and glue.
He called it the Magic Cube. It took him a full month to solve.
He was even more puzzled when it began flying off the shelves, selling not just to the math and science geeks he expected, but also to the bored masses looking for a brain teaser. It became a hair-pulling hit.
In his book, Cubed: The Puzzle of Us All, Rubik writes: “It is a curious fact — one that surprises me as much as anyone — that for many decades during a time of an unprecedented technological revolution, fascination with such a simple lowtech object has survived.”
Toronto-based toymaker Spin Master isn’t surprised. It recently paid $50 million to add Rubik’s Cube to its stable of retro lines that includes the Aerobie flying disc, the Etch A Sketch drawing tool and teddy bear favourite, Gund.
“The Rubik’s Cube is an iconic puzzle that has permeated pop culture and captivated fans for more than 40 years,” Spin Master executive Elizabeth Lovecchio said after the acquisition in January. Ronnen Harary, the firm’s co-founder, praised its “high brand awareness” and added: “Everybody has a story about Rubik’s Cube and it engenders such amazing sentiment with people.”
For those who need a refresher, the Rubik’s Cube is made up of a series of coloured squares that rotate on a central axis. The challenge comes in mixing up the colours and then cracking the billions of configurations to realign them.
In its first three years of marketing in the early 1980s, more than 150 million cubes (an estimated 50 million unauthorized) were sold and more than two dozen books were published on how to conquer the confounded box.
By 1982, however, the phenomenon appeared to be peaking, with the New York Times writing it off as a “fad” that wouldn’t stand the test of time.
But while the hype died, Rubik’s invention kept spinning, just not as loudly.
Over time it would spawn a new craze, “speedcubing,” in which teenagers with flying fingers compete to solve the puzzle in record time at packed arenas. The best can knock it off in mere seconds.
Other cube-solving twists: doing it blindfolded, doing it underwater, doing it with feet, doing it on a unicycle.
In suburban Toronto, an 11-year-old girl set a world record for solving 30 Rubik’s Cubes while hula hooping one-handed. A teen from Greater Victoria went one better. In February, he broke the unofficial record for the most cubes solved while hula hooping, at 554 after three hours — double the existing tally.
Artists have been inspired, teasing little squares into lavish mosaics and portraits of famous faces including comedian Jimmy Fallon and Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds, among others.
A British puzzle maker is a big fan, creating the world’s largest Rubik’s Cube at just over two metres on each side. Tony Fisher beat the mark previously set in 2018 by a Canadian team whose creation stood 1.68 metres on each side.
With the success of Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, which has thrust chess back into the spotlight, there’s now talk of a Rubik’s Cube movie and a game show to capitalize on the fresh interest in classic pastimes.
Social media posts and apps that teach users how to solve the puzzle quickly while tracking stats against a global leaderboard have further driven demand among the tech generation.
But perhaps the biggest rebuke to that premature New York Times obituary has been the pandemic. Sales are projected to rise by up to 20 per cent this year as marooned families seek out hands-on activities that are both inspirational and educational, Forbes reported.
In his book, published last September, the 76-year-old Rubik says the toy’s enduring popularity may partly be down to what makes it so frustrating: its nearly endless number of possible solutions.
“That is one of its most mysterious qualities,” he writes. “The end turns into new beginnings.”