The Rubik's Cube - history & tips for solving it
The Rubik's cube is one of the most puzzling toys of all time. Sometimes referred to as a Rubix cube or Rubick's cube, this frustrating toy had its time on the world stage during the fad-ridden 80s. It would rank as one of the most cherished 80s icons and few people have ever claimed to solve it on their own. In fact, most solutions have come from mathematicians using group theory. So how did it start, where can you get one (try here) and how can it be solved?
A Quick History
The Rubik's cube is actually an invention of the 70s. Erno Rubik, a Hungarian obsessed with 3D geometry started visualising his 3D cube in late 1974. Initially it seemed that constructing a working model would be nearly impossible. None of the designs at the time could solve the complex interaction of the elements.
Apparently Erno gained inspiration from smooth pebbles on the shores of the Danube - this introduced the idea of cylindrical shapes and axes into the cube (take one apart to see this in action). Finally the proto-types were created and it became an obsession with Rubik's students and colleagues.
At the time, Hungary was still deeply communist and it took around three years for the cubes to start appearing in Hungarian toy stores. Finally in early 78, people were starting to play with this strange toy. The cube started to spread after visiting German Dr Tibor Laczi 'discovered' the cube, and took it to the 1979 Nurenberg toy show. There was apparently little interest (this point makes you wonder how many people were kicking themselves years later). However, Tom Kremer of Seven Towns took up the challenge but even with years of experience as a toy developer and producer, he found it very tough to find anyone to assist with marketing and distribution. Finally, The Ideal Toy company came on board.
Interestingly, it was a mathematician who bought the cube the first significant public attention outside of Hungary. David Singmaster found the mathematics of the cube to be engrossing. This lead to an article and front cover picture of Rubik's cube appearing on Scientific American in 1981.
The craze begins
By 1980, the cube had started to take off - largely due to Erno's appearances at toy fairs. Some supply problems caused a shortage. Despite an initial order of 1 million, it was apparent this was not enough. Demand in 1981 had exceeded capacity. The Rubik's cube craze was off and running. In 1982, it earned a listing in the Oxford Dictionary and over 50 books were offering solutions. It is estimated that over 100 million cubes were sold by the end of 1982. The exact number was hard to determine because of mass piracy.
Cheap imitations of Rubik's cube flooded the market and with the 'original' cube in short supply, pirates were having a field day. This was probably fuelled by the fact that the cube was only patented in Hungary. Few people were aware of other legal protections, so it was incorrectly assumed that the cube was available to anyone.
Pirated cubes appeared in all shapes and sizes - from just one centimetre across and hanging off a chain (there was also a legal version of this too), to cylinders and shaved corners to give the appearance of 16 sides. There was a legitimate legal defence to the lack of patents, but it probably came too late. Erno had copyright over the cube - it was created as a one-off object with artistic merit. Hence, standard copyright laws apply to the object or images of it (the images on this page appear with permission).
Then, in true 80s style, the Rubik's cube fad crashed and burned. By 1983, cubes had ceased production. Few people had an interest in the toy and almost every home had one (mostly in bits). The Ideal Toy company was bought by CBS who then sold the Rubik's cube rights to Seven Towns. In 1991 the cube began a modest come back but it wasn't until the late 90s that the cube staged a modest return. Despite a higher world population and greater affluence, the cube only manages sales in the vicinity of half a million a year.
Happy 30th birthday - or is it?
Interestingly, the Rubiks Cube has marketed as having it's 30th anniversay in 2011. From the above, it is clear that this is an arbritary date that conicides with the peak of the craze rather than it's first invention (1974) or production (1977).
See these instructions for how to take apart a Rubik's cube.
Solving the Rubik's Cube
If you are trying to solve the Rubik's Cube, then here are some tips to help you get there. If they are not enough, we show you ways to locate a solution
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