The little cube that changed the world

Rubik's Cube

There’s one solution out of 43 quintillion possible combinations, and even the man who invented it spent a month of solid research trying to figure it out. But that hasn’t stopped the Rubik’s Cube from becoming the most popular toy in history.

The colorful puzzle, consisting of small blocks rotating on a central axis, has sold an estimated 350 million units since its conception nearly 40 years ago. And yet the man whose name it bears — Erno Rubik — only ever intended it to be a teaching aid for his small class of design students.
Rubik's Cube
The son of a poet mother and a father who manufactured glider planes, Rubik grew up in Soviet-era Hungary, studying both sculpture and architecture. His life-changing idea arrived when he was in his late 20s, a young professor still living at home with his parents.

Starting off with just chunks of wood and rubber bands, Rubik set about trying to create a structure that would permit individual blocks to move independently of one another without the whole thing falling apart.

It took six years to go from prototype to market, but when it finally hit the shelves at the start of the 1980s, it became the fastest selling puzzle of all time. It stills retains its appeal to this day. Last year alone it sold seven million units and so-called “speed cubing” competitions — where contestants attempt to solve the puzzle against the clock — are as popular as ever.

In a rare interview, the publicity-shy Rubik retraces the journey of his iconic toy.

CNN: What do you think it is about the cube that continues to capture the public imagination?
Erno Rubik: I believe probably the most characteristic part of the cube is the contradiction between simplicity and complexity. I love the simplicity of the cube because it’s a very clear geometrical shape, and I love geometry because it’s the study of how the whole universe is structured.
I think probably that’s part of the key to the success of the cube — you are able to have a connection with this order and chaos.

CNN: You had the idea in 1974 and at the time you were a lecturer in interior design, what set you off on this invention?
ER: I was searching to find a good task for my students.
When you are studying from a book, lots of people go straight to the end to look for the answers. But that’s not my style. For me, the most enjoyable part is the puzzle, the process of solving, not the solution itself.
Also, we were playing with geometry, which is not a static subject. It’s a very mobile thing, it’s changeable.
So, I was looking for a mobile structure and I found the geometry of a cube very exciting because of the high level of symmetries it has and the fact that you can do a lot of things with it.

CNN: What was the puzzle you were trying to pose?
ER: Usually structures are pieces that are connected in some way or another, and usually these connections are stable things. So all the time “A” is connected to “B.” But with the structure of the Rubik’s Cube, you realize these elements are moving very freely, but you don’t understand what keeps the whole thing together, so that was a very interesting part of it.

CNN: How did you go about building the prototype?
ER: Nowadays you’ve got three-dimensional printing and CAD [computer-aided design] programs on computers, but I was working at a very different time.
There was a workshop in the school, and I just used wood as a material because it is very simple to use and you don’t need any sophisticated machines.
So I made it just by using my hands — cutting the wood, drilling holes, using elastic bands and those kind of very simple things.

CNN: How does the internal mechanism actually work?
ER: Usually people are surprised by how simple it is, but it is also very difficult to explain. So the best way to discover it is to take it apart!

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