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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 initially 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 at the Department of Interior Design at the
Academy of Applied Arts and Crafts in Budapest.
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 combination of forms and materials, not just in
theory, but also 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 realisation 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.
Although possible the most original of all invented puzzles, the Cube
was not born 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, yet so rich in
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 fascinating geometric problems 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 creations the Cube really is.
What Erno Rubik's is set out to do was to create a three dimensional
object, of a high aesthetic value, which was not only richer in
configuration variations and more of a mental challenge than any puzzle
in existence, but also one which would continue to be ONE,
SELF-CONTAINED WHOLE, all through its manifold transformations.
This objective seemed at first impossible to achieve. As impossible as
the 3-axial rotation of the Cube appears on the 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 an elastic
rubber construction which 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 realised that only a totally original conception could provide a
The inspiration came on a lazy, summer day as he was watching the Danube
flow by. On the bank his eyes rested on some pebbles, whose sharp edges
have been rubbed and smoothed away in the course of time brining 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 colours. Lots of different decorative patterns, with
numbers, symbols as well as diverse colour combinations were tried, but
none of them worked nearly as well as the six simple but distinct
colours, each one unifying and differentiating one single face of the
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
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 a the helm of the toy
production firm of Politechnika, President Lehel Takacz and Chief
Engineer Ferencz Manczur that they perceived at once 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.
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. The word of mouth spread and by the
beginning of 1979 there were enthusiastic circles of Cube devotees in
various parts of Hungary.
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, the bridge
which eventually enabled the Cube to cross the divide was built by two
men of Hungarian origin who established their lives in the West.
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 to Hungary. He fell in love with it, and
sensing its potential consumer appeal, brought it to the Nurnberg Toy
Fair in February 1979 in 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 as
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 interesting 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 a pact, there and then, to translate the Hungarian success
of the Cube onto the world stage. Dr Ladzi 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
realise 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 children, youths and the general
Undeterred by the universal rejection, 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 has gained a sufficient degree of
popularity to be seen occasionally in the street, on trams, in the
cafes, each time in the hand of someone turning and twisting and
completely absorbed. After five days of convoluted negotiations between
a sceptical American capitalist and an obstinate communist organization
largely ignorant of the operation of a free market, with Laczi and
Kremer holding desperately the two sides together, an order for one
million cubes was signed amidst much handshaking and great relief all
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
Apart from a small seepage across the Hungarian borders, the Cube made
its international debut at the Toy Fairs of London, Paris, Nurnberg 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 any other
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
The flow of products from Hungary, began in May 1980. As soon as the
Cube found its way into the hands of consumers it became evident that
the initial order of one million pieces for the first year would not be
anywhere near sufficient to meet the growing demand. From the very
beginning it was a characteristic of the Cube that no matter how fast
production increased, demand grew faster. Contrary to what the leaders
of the Toy Industry had expected, for the next two and a half years the
problem was not selling Cubes but of supplying them. From 1 million the
figures started to grow quickly to 2, to 3, to 5 million and then, in
1981 exploded expontentially. Production centres had to expand from
Hungary to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Costa Rica and Brazil, taking up the
capacities of many separate factories in each centre.
The challenge of trying to master the Cube, to be able to restore all of
its six sides to the original colours seemed to have a mesmeric effect
on an amazing variety of individuals right across age, occupation,
wealth and social standing. Grandmothers, bank managers, baseball
players, pilots, librarians, park attendants could be seen working away
at their Cubes at any hour of the day. In restaurants the Cube would
feature on tables side by side with salt and pepper pots, handled with
greater frequency than either. But it was the young, schoolboys and
students, who were in the vanguard of what was fast becoming a massive
movement that swept through the world. They were the ones who proved
most adept at solving the puzzle, they were the ones to form special
cubists clubs, to organise competitions, to suffer from Rubik's wrist
playing continuously for hours and days with an object that simply could
not put down.
The difficulty of solving the Cube and the absolute compulsion of trying
to solve it generated over 60 books offering desperately needed help.
They in turn generated more addicts, displaying with evident pride their
newly acquired prowess.
After winning the highest prize for outstanding inventions in Hungary,
in 1980 the Cube own top toy awards in Germany, France, Britain and the
U.S. by 1981 it entered as an exhibit the hallowed halls of the New York
Museum of Modern Art. The Cube achieved such a universal presence and
penetrated so deeply the fabric of our society that "Rubik's Cube", by
1982 a household term, became part of the Oxford English Dictionary.
It is difficult to estimate the total number of Cubes sold throughout
the world. In the period of 1980-1982, partly because demand far
outstripped supply, a huge variety of pirate, unauthorised products of
inferior quality came onto the market from opportunistic Taiwanese,
Korean and Hong Kong vendors. Although the Ideal Toy Corporations won a
number of court cases in Holland, Britain, the U.S. and other countries,
it was impossible to stem the tide. It is safe to assume that the
figure exceeds 100 million, it is certain that it was significantly
greater than that.
Interestingly, the legal defense of the Cube was never based on the
original patent that applied to Hungary only. It was the "Rubik"
trademark, Erno Rubik's copyright in the object itself and the "passing
off" laws which secured, and continues to these days to secure adequate
protection of the Cube against unauthorised copies in all countries
throughout the world.
In effect, as the Cube was initially created as a one-off object, with
an inherent artistic merit, the Rubik copyright applies not only to the
3D object itself but also to any graphic representation of it in print
or on screen, right until 70 years after the creator's death.
Given the extraordinary volumes of sales, both legitimate and
illegitimate, it was inevitable that eventually a saturation point would
be reached. The market in Cubes collapsed, shops and factories
remaindered their stocks and for some time from 1983 onwards the Cube
became unavailable. The Ideal Toy Corp. was bought by CBS and CBS
itself got out of toys in 1985.
The toy business being largely a fashion oriented, the industry gave up
on the Cube, considering it a fad, albeit an unprecedent one. Not so
Tom Kremer. He had always considered the Cube as one of the all time
great classic toys, worthy to be placed alongside such permanent
fixtures as Monopoly, Scrabble and Barbie. So in 1985 his company,
Seven Towns, acquired all the rights to the "Rubik's Cube". Biding
their time, they re-introduced the Cube, without any hype, very
gradually in selected key markets, beginning in 1991. Compared to the
giant waves of the early eighties, sales were just a trickle in the
first few years. However, in 1995, Oddzon a dynamic Californian based
company took over the distribution of the Cube with dramatic results.
In 1996 in the US alone over 300,000 Cubes were sold with the numbers
growing in 1997 and 1998. In Japan, where Tsukuda is still the faithful
original Rubik's Cube distributor, sales have exceeded 100,000 in 1997
and in Britain sales are heading that way too. The pattern is the same
world over. The Cube is definitely staging a come back.
But now, in its second incarnation, the Cube is part of a family of
puzzles and games which bear the stamp of the genius who created the
greatest three dimensional puzzle the world has ever known.
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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