How the Rubik’s Cube puzzle toy became a worldwide sensation

Basic Rubik's Cube puzzle toy

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The Rubik’s cube, that famous, colorful 3D puzzle, has captured minds since it first hit shelves in the 1970s. Whether you were a casual player or a speed-cubing champion, the challenge of solving this iconic cube has a way of pulling you in. It’s a puzzle that’s not just about getting the colors to match — but is all about strategy and spatial awareness…  and a bit of luck.

Originally invented in 1974 by Ernő Rubik, a Hungarian architect and professor, the Rubik’s cube didn’t really make a splash until he licensed it to the Ideal Toy Corp to produce and sell the game/toy wholesale in 1980. It immediately became a worldwide sensation, winning awards and bringing hours of entertainment — and frustration — to people all over the world for the last 40+ years.

The Rubik’s cube also became a cultural icon, appearing in movies, TV shows, and even art. It sparked competitions worldwide, with speedcubers breaking records with astonishing times. These contests brought together a community of enthusiasts who shared tips, tricks, and algorithms to conquer the cube. 

With well over 350 million cubes sold worldwide, Rubik’s creation is often considered to be the best-selling toy of all time, and remains popular even decades after its debut.

Below, we’ve gathered up a collection of vintage Rubik’s cube memorabilia, showcasing the humble cube’s impact on our culture and celebrating its journey from a simple puzzle to a treasured cultural artifact.

Pieces of a broken Rubik's Cube toy

Rubik’s Cube frustrations heat up summer (1981)

Excerpted from the Lawrence Journal-World (Kansas) July 21, 1981

New York — The summer’s most popular cubes are not the colorless frozen water kind that do nothing but melt lazily in chilled glasses filled with tea, Perrier or Kir. No: This summer’s big cube is a maddening Mondrian-colored plastic puzzle, composed of 27 subcubes that rotate on horizontal and vertical axes.

It’s called Rubik’s Cube, after Erno Rubik, a teacher of architecture and design at the School for Commercial Artists in Budapest.

The object of his addictive invention is to scramble the solid-color sides by twisting and turning the rows of cubes on their inner axes and eventually return them to their original places.

New Yorkers are currently twisting and turning Rubik’s creation on streets, stoops, subways, buses, benches and beaches — and in bars, beds and, no doubt, hot tubs.

And the first regional competition for the title of United States Rubik’s Cube champion will be held Saturday in Burlington, Mass, near Boston.

The first person to try her skill publicly with the cube in America was Zsa Zsa Gabor, who was hired last year by the Ideal Toy Corp, which manufactures the cube in this country, to promote the creation of her fellow Hungarian.

Huge Rubik's Cube - sculpture in Hungary - Credit: ChristyAnn via Twenty20
Huge Rubik’s Cube – sculpture in Hungary – Credit: ChristyAnn via Twenty20

The Rubik-Gabor association was short-lived, however, and no one seems to recall whether or not Miss Gabor ever solved the puzzle — there are more than 43 quintillion possible positions — but there are no lack of others now trying.

According to Ideal, more than 10 million cubes have been sold worldwide since May 1980. Not all purchasers become as violent as the man who flung his cube from the window of a Fifth Avenue bus one scorching day last week, shouting “The hell with it. It’s impossible.”

About Tiddlywinks: The history of the old-fashioned game people keep rediscovering

Actually, it’s not. Benji Fisher, 18, a student at the Bronx High School of Science, says he can solve the puzzle in two and a half minutes. Fisher, one of eight United States representatives in the recent International Mathematical Olympiad, does not recommend haphazard twisting and turning.

“If you make one move every second, you’ll probably get the cube back to the way it was in a few billion years,” he explains.

Fisher, who says he did not use formal mathematics in reaching his solution, offers this advice: “Don’t be afraid to mess up something that looks good; find simple maneuvers that leave most of it unchanged; remember precisely what those moves do.”

YouTube video

Finding Rubik’s Cube can be puzzle in itself

From the Hutchinson News (Kansas) December 24, 1981

Finding an authentic Rubik’s Cube for sale in Southwest Kansas this Christmas appears to be as challenging as the puzzle itself, a survey of several stores shows.

The object of the six-sided puzzle is to get each side to be one of six colors by rotating the cubes within it.

“We had some (authentic Rubik’s Cubes) very early in the season,” a spokesman for Taylor’s Toys in Great Bend said. “We sold out of those very quickly. We got some imitation puzzles like it in, and they go just about as fast. The demand is very strong for them.”

Completed Rubik's Cube puzzle
Photo: siriphat.wandee via Twenty20

A spokesman for a Hutchinson store said he could have sold four times as many cubes if he had had them.

“We probably sold 100, but could have sold another 400,” Otasco’s Gary Lanning said. “Being a seasonal item, we got them back in September, and have been sold out for a long time.”

Lanning attributed part of the cube’s popularity to advertising. The store’s two most popular items this Christmas have been a hand-held vacuum cleaner called the Dust-Buster and the Rubik’s Cube.

“The Dust-Buster’s been out for four or five years,” Lanning said. “But when the advertising hit the market this year, it went out quickly. Everybody and his dog needs a Dust-Buster or a Rubik’s Cube.”

At Garden City, one store had about a dozen imitations left when it closed Tuesday evening.

“We can only get a copy of the real thing,” Millie Zimmerman, assistant manager at Garden City’s TG&Y, said. “We got 148 of them in last Thursday, and sold them out really quick. They are definitely one of our hottest sellers.”

Photo: kung.nawarat via Twenty20
Photo: kung.nawarat via Twenty20

At Garden City’s Books, Etc., a similar situation existed. “The original Rubik’s Cube is hard to come by,” a spokesman said. “We’ve had a lot of demand, even for the off-brands. We sell out as fast as we get them, even.” Similar reports were received from store owners in Liberal and Dodge City.

Reasons why the Rubik’s Cube continues to fascinate people are even difficult to come by. “I really don’t know why people are so fascinated by them,” Dr Donald Brada, psychiatrist of the Mental Health Institute, said. “It has been a curious phenomenon, as is the same with the computer games.”

Dr Brada said he does not think people have a subconscious need for frustration.

“After the initial challenge, people seem to stick with it for some time as long as they see some progress. They’ll get the first side right and then go on to the second side. People just enjoy the challenge of it — it tempts their intellect.”

Vintage Rubik's Cube ad from 1992

Rubik’s Cube a pain in thumb, also (1981)

From the Santa Ana Orange County Register (California) September 24, 1981

Madness may be but one risk for the country’s more than 10 million Rubik’s Cube owners.

The incredibly difficult puzzle — with 43 quintillion positions and only one solution — was reported Wednesday to cause physical as well as mental pain.

The report, from Dr Douglas Waugh of the Association of Canadian Medical Colleges in Ottawa, Canada, appears in a letter in this week’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Cuber’s thumb,” Waugh writes, “is characterized by a localized, exquisitely tender swelling” of the palm surface of the lower joint of the left thumb. He says the swelling and pain can be mistaken for gout, a form of arthritis, and goes on to describe how he came upon the Rubik’s Cube-related injury.

“My wife,” he wrote, “became so absorbed in a Rubik’s Cube that I gave her on her birthday last June that I went out and bought one for myself in self-defense.

“Hers was a top-of-the-line ‘racing cube’ costing about $12.50; it can be manipulated fairly easily and smoothly. Mine was made in Taiwan, cost about $7, and tends to stick when it’s pieces are rotated. Since I am right-handed, it is my practice to hold the cube in my left hand with one of its corners firmly braced against the base of my left thumb.

Many kinds of Rubik's cube toys and copycats
Photo: lmallo via Twenty20

“My initial symptoms were sufficiently distressing to send me to my family physician, who tentatively agreed with my diagnosis of gout and started me on a treatment with phenylbutazone (an arthritis drug).

“The correct diagnosis was made a couple of days later when I picked up my cube and jammed it on a rotation, thrusting its corner against the painful metacarpal (joint). Treatment on an interim basis has consisted of swiping my wife’s racing cube. Long-term treatment will be the purchase of one of my own as soon as stocks are replenished at the local hobby shop.”

Vintage Rubik's cube in package

Waugh could not be reached Wednesday for comment on the success of his self-prescribed treatment. His receptionist said he was home sick.

But Hal Levy predicts purchase of a new cube will cure the thumb. While not a physician, Levy is a spokesman for Ideal Toy Corp, which markets the Rubik’s Cube around the world.

“He never would have had the problem if he’d bought the original,” Levy said. (Far Eastern toy pirates, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, have sold millions of Hong Kong and Taiwanese-made imitations of the cube.)

Levy said he knows of no reports of “cuber’s FR (thumb)” to Ideal Toy Corp. He added there is no recommended way to hold the puzzle.

The history of the Rubik’s Cube

Invented by a Hungarian architect, Erno Rubik in 1974, and put on the Hungarian market in 1977, the Rubik’s Cube was first sold in the United States and other countries in 1980. The cube already has outsold all previous puzzles, becoming the most popular game of its kind in the history of the toy industry.

YouTube video

It is a box made up of 26 small, brightly-colored plastic boxes, each of which can be rotated and twisted through 360 degrees. The object is to scramble the cube and then restore it to its original state — a solid color on each of its six sides.

Arriving at the solution can require 80 to 100 or more twists and hundreds of hours. It took Rubik himself a month to arrive at the solution after he built his first rough model.

James Nourse, a Stanford University chemist and author of “The Simple Solution to Rubik’s Cube,” estimates only about 1 percent of the people who try succeed in cracking the puzzle.

While Waugh is hopeful he has found the answer for relieving the pain in his thumb, he is less optimistic he will be able to eliminate the underlying cause of the injury.

What were the most popular toys in the early '80s? See toys, games & fun for kids in the 1981 Sears Catalog Wishbook

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