Brief history of the Cube

Every invention has an official birth date. For the Cube this date is 1974 when the first working prototype came into being and a patent application was drafted. The place was Budapest, the capital of Hungary. The inventor's name is now a household word. At the time, Erno Rubik was a lecturer in the Department of Interior Design at the Academy of Applied Arts and Crafts in Budapest.

Erno Rubik

Erno Rubik

Although 1974 marks the inauguration of the Cube, the processes that led to the invention began a few years earlier, nor was the identity of the inventor a fortuitous accident. Erno Rubik had a passionate interest in geometry, in the study of 3D forms, in construction and in exploring the hidden possibilities of combinations of forms and material in theory and in practice.

In the course of his teaching, Erno Rubik preferred to communicate his ideas by the use of actual models, made from paper, cardboard, wood or plastic, challenging his students to experiment by manipulating clearly constructed and easily interpreted forms. It was the realization that even the simplest elements, cleverly duplicated and manipulated, yield an abundance of multiple forms that was the first step on the long road that led finally to the Cube. Erno had applied for a Hungarian patent for the Magic Cube in 1975, the first test batches were not produced until late 1977.

Although possibly the most original of all invented puzzles, the Cube was not created in a vacuum. Its classical antecedents are great puzzles in their own right. The Tangram, originating from ancient China, merely consists of 5 triangles, a square and a parallelogram, simple elements that yield a multitude of interesting figures. The Pentomino, invented by Solomon W. Golomb, has 12 different elements, each one made up of five squares joined together, displaying all the possible configurations of the five combined squares. Pentomino poses the fascinating geometric problem of constructing various rectangles. Piet Hein's Soma Cube is, in a sense, a three dimensional version of Pentominos. It resembles Rubik's Cube both in shape and in the large number of ways its seven elements can be assembled into a 3x3x3 cube. Finally, there is Sam Loyd's well known 15 puzzle, with it's numbered tiles locked together yet moving separately, so that by pushing them about they can be set in sequential order and scrambled at will. Viewing these puzzles places Rubik's Cube in a context and highlights just what a breakthrough creation the Cube really is.

What Erno Rubik's set out to do was create a three dimensional object, of high aesthetic value, which was not only richer in configuration variations and more of a mental challenge than any puzzle in existence, but would also continue to be ONE, SELF-CONTAINED WHOLE, throughout its manifold transformations.

This objective seemed at first as impossible to achieve as the 3-axial rotation of the Cube appears on first encounter. After conceiving the idea of the 3x3x3 Cube, Erno Rubik first tried to hold together the elements of a simpler, 2x2x2 cube, by means of an elastic rubber construction that threaded its way through all 8 elements. Even at this simple level it soon became clear that such a device could not work. The alternatives then available, such as magnets and the obvious tongue and grooves system, could not cope with the complexity of the different junctions and movements that each element required. Erno Rubik realized that only a totally original concept could provide a satisfactory solution.

The inspiration came on a lazy summer day as he was watching the Danube flow by. Rubik's eye was attracted by some pebbles, whose sharp edges have been rubbed and smoothed away in the course of time bringing into being rounded shapes of great but simple beauty. The interior of the Cube elements had to have the same rounded architecture. The brilliant interior mechanism, which is basically cylindrical, took some time to reach its final form. For ease of manipulation, the balance between tightness and looseness had to be just right, tolerances had to be exact. Finally, the 54 outer surfaces of the individual elements were given their colors. Lots of different decorative patterns, with numbers and symbols as well as diverse color combinations were tried, but none of them worked nearly as well as the six simple but distinct colors, each one unifying and differentiating one single face of the Cube.

When the Cube was complete, Erno Rubik demonstrated it to his students and let some of his friends play with it. The effect was instantaneous. Once somebody laid his hands on the Cube it was difficult to get it back!

The compulsive interest of friends and students in the Cube caught its creator completely by surprise and it was months before any thought was given to the possibility of producing it on an industrial scale.

Eventually a manufacturer took on the job of tooling up for mass production and making the puzzle available to the public at large. Given the inner complexity of the Cube, and the then prevailing economic conditions in communist Hungary, this was by no means an easy undertaking. It is to the credit of the two men at the helm of the toy production firm of Politechnika, President Lehel Takacz and Chief Engineer Ferencz Manczur that they at once perceived enough merit in the Cube to accept this task. The process of turning the hand made object into thousands of low cost, mass manufactured units was slow. It took the best part of three years, but at last, towards the end of 1977 the first Cubes appeared on the shelves of the Budapest toyshops.

The production of the original Magic
  Cube in Hungary

The production of the original Magic Cube in Hungary

During 1978, without any promotion or publicity, the Cube began very slowly to make its way through the hands of fascinated youths into homes, playgrounds and schools. Word of mouth spread the news and by the beginning of 1979. There was growing interest in the Magic Cube throughout Hungary. Some Western World academics were also most interested in it. In September, a deal was signed with Ideal Toys to bring the Magic Cube to the West.

With the country being both physically and culturally behind the iron curtain at the time, the growing popularity of the Cube did not cross over to the West for quite some time. Not surprisingly, two men of Hungarian origin who had established their lives in the West built the bridge, which eventually enabled the Cube to cross the divide.

Dr Tibor Laczi, born in Budapest, educated in Vienna and employed by a major German computer manufacturer "discovered" the Cube on one of his frequent business trips. He fell in love with it, and sensing its potential consumer appeal, brought it to the Nuremberg Toy Fair in February 1979 in the hope of finding a potential German toy distributor. He did not meet with a great deal of success but he did stumble across an individual who at that point of the Cube's history was destined to make a crucial difference.

Tom Kremer, a successful toy and game inventor himself, whose mother language was also Hungarian, ran at the time his own marketing and licensing company. Seven Towns Ltd., based in London, was widely respected throughout the international toy industry as a product developer working not only with its own ideas but also representing professional inventors from all over the world.

The two men made a pact, there and then, to translate the Hungarian success of the Cube onto the world stage. Dr Laczi headed back to Hungary to pave the way with the prevailing Hungarian bureaucracy whilst Tom Kremer set off on a world tour of toy manufacturers. He was convinced that to realize the Cube's full commercial potential it had to have the marketing muscle, the promotional power and distribution network of a major international company. Unfortunately he found none of the leading players in the field shared his enthusiasm. Although impressed by the Cube, the general view within the industry estimated its prospects to be poor. Its "faults" were numerous: Too difficult and expensive to manufacture, impossible to demonstrate its fascination on TV, too abstract, too cerebral, too quiet, a challenge for the esoteric academic mind rather than a puzzle meant for the young and the general public.

Undeterred by this universal rejection, and spurred on by his firm belief in the exceptional quality of the toy, Tom Kremer, now armed with a convincing marketing plan, continued his search for a viable partner. After many disappointments, he succeeded in persuading Stewart Sims, Vice President of Marketing of the Ideal Toy Corporation, to come to Hungary, to see with his own eyes the Cube in play. It was now September 1979, by which time the Cube had gained a sufficient degree of popularity to be seen occasionally in the street, on trams, in cafes, each time in the hands of someone turning and twisting it, completely absorbed. After five days of convoluted negotiations between a skeptical American capitalist and an obstinate communist organization largely ignorant of the operation of a free market, with Laczi and Kremer desperately holding the two sides together, an order for one million cubes was signed amidst much handshaking and great relief all round.

In the meanwhile, quite independently of these developments, David Singmaster, an English mathematician, became deeply interested in the theoretical problems and ramifications raised by the Cube in his own field. He wrote a newspaper article in June 1979, the first one to appear outside Hungary, which brought the Cube to the attention of academic circles world wide and led indirectly to another milestone in its history: an article in Scientific American, with a cover picture, by Douglas Hotstadter an acknowledged authority in the field of Recreational Mathematics.

Apart from a small seepage across the Hungarian borders, the Cube made its international debut at the Toy Fairs of London, Paris, Nuremberg and New York in January/February, 1980. With Erno Rubik demonstrating his own creation, the Cube made an immediate impact. The trade buyers were impressed, orders rolled in. There was just one problem: there were no Cubes! Western quality standards and packaging norms meant drastic changes in the Hungarian manufacturing process. This, as with any change under a communist in regime, was slow in coming. Communication between New York and Budapest, given the linguistic and cultural differences, despite the frequent interventions of Tom Kremer, were not easy. The new Cube was easier to manipulate. Ideal Toys renamed it Rubik's Cube. The first Rubik's Cubes were exported from Hungary in May 1980.

As soon as the cube came into the hands of the customers, it was clear that the original order of 1 million pieces would never suffice for the first year to cover the growing demand. From the beginning it was characteristically for the Cube, that the demand always rose faster than the production, no matter how much that was increasing. In the contrast to the expectation of the toys industry, the problem in the next two and a half years was not to sell the Cube, but to get it delivered. Soon the number of cubes rose from 1 million to 2, then 3, up to 5 million, and 1981 it increased exponential. Additional production centers were built in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Costa Rica and Brazil.

The challenge to have control over the Cube and being able to order all six sides with its original colours, seemed to have an enchanting effect to an amazing number of individuals, not depending on their age, profession, income or social class. You could see grandmothers, bank directors, baseball players, pilots, librarians and car-park attendants to every time of day being engaged with the Cube. In restaurants, the Cube often stood on the table together with salt and pepper, and it was more often taken in the hands. But first it was the youth, school children and students, who were in front of the quickly developing movement, which went around the whole world. They seemed to be able to solve the puzzle better than anyone else. They founded special Cube clubs, organized competitions and suffered from the infamous "Cube arm" after they played hours and days non-stop with an object, which they simply couldn't put from the hand. The difficulty to solve the cube, and the absolute impulse to find the solution, led to the fact, that more than 60 books were offered to help the despairing players. Because of the books, more people than ever suffered from the cube addiction, and showed proudly their new abilities.

After the cube got its first price for excellent inventions in Hungary, 1980 it also won recognized awards in Germany, France, Great Britain and USA. In the year 1981 it found its way as an exhibit to the holy rooms of the New York Museum of Modern Art. The Cube reached such an publicity and penetrated the social fabric so deeply that the name "Rubik's Cube" 1982 got its entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Rubik's Cube World Championship

The Rubik's Cube World Championship

The total number of worldwide sold Cubes is difficult to estimate. In the years 1980 to 1982, when the demand exceeded the supplies yet, a great number of pirated copies with low quality came onto the market, which were offered by opportunistic traders in Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong. Though Ideal Toy won a number of lawsuits in Holland, Great Britain, the USA and other countries, it was impossible to stop this flood. It's quite sure that its number exceeds 100 million, perhaps it was even much higher.

It's interestingly enough, that the legal defence isn't based on the original patent, which was only registered in Hungary. Instead it was the "Rubik" trademark, therefore Erno Rubik's copyright for the object itself, which protects the Cube against unauthorized copies in all countries of the world.

Because the Cube was first created as a single item with an artistic value, Rubik's copyright does not only include the three-dimensional object, but also every graphical representation of the Cube in the print or on the screen, even 70 years after the death of the inventor.

In the regard of the extraordinary high (legal and illegal) sales figures it was unavoidable, that sometime there would be reached the degree of saturation. The Cube market caved in, shops and factories gave back their stocks, and from 1983 the Cube was not available in the trade for some time. The Ideal Toy Corp was bought up by CBS, and CBS retired from the toys market by 1985.

Because the toys industry mainly orientates itself to fashion currents, the Cube was finally given up. However, this didn't apply to Tom Kremer. He still considered the Cube as one of the greatest classical toys, which could exist side by side with such greatnesses like Monopoly, Scrabble and Mr. Potato Head. 1985 his company, Seven Towns, bought all rights to "Rubik's Cube". In the year 1991 he introduced the Cube into some selected target markets without great publicity. In the comparison with the gigantic phenomenon of the early 80s, the sales figures in the first years were extremely low. But 1995 Oddzone, a dynamic company from California, took over the marketing of the Cube, and dramatic successes appeared. 1996 the Cube was sold in the USA more than 300.000 times, and the numbers further increased in 1997 and 1998. In Japan, where Tsukado is still the Cube's original wholesaler, the sales figures reached 100.000 pieces, and in Great Britain the numbers developed in the same direction. This sample recurs worldwide. The Cube is definitively starting its comeback.

But now, in its second incarnation, the Cube is a part of a family of puzzles and games, which all show the handwriting of the genius, who has invented the best three-dimensional puzzle the world has ever seen.
Erno Rubik has not changed much over the years. Working closely with Seven Towns, he is still deeply engaged in creating new games and puzzles, and remains one of the principal beneficiaries of what proved to be a spectacularly successful invention.


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Paragraphs 19 to 27 (German text; translation by Markus Pirzer):

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