Rubik's Cube: brain-bending

Classic Projects: Rubik's Cube

Find out why the Rubik’s Cube is a classic.

The story of the world’s bestselling three-dimensional puzzle starts in 1974 when a young Hungarian professor of architecture called Ernö Rubik concocted the first working prototype of a solid cube that could be twisted and turned without falling apart. Rubik initially developed the brightly coloured cube as a teaching aid to help explain to students about spatial relationships. Despite his background in engineering and architecture, Rubik thought of his cube more as a mobile sculpture symbolising the human condition, order and chaos.It is the relationship between order and chaos that provides the cube’s great fascination. Within seconds of looking at the scrambled cube, the user can see what they are supposed to do. And yet, as its manufacturer says: ‘Without instruction, it is almost impossible to solve, making it one of the most infuriating and engaging inventions ever conceived.’

One of the reasons the cube is so difficult to solve (for most of us) is that there are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 (or 43 quintillion) ways to scramble it. According to the Rubik’s website, if there was one cube for every permutation, and they were laid out end-to-end, they would stretch approximately 261 light years into space. Alternatively, the same number of cubes could completely cover the Earth 273 times. While on the subject of mind-blowing statistics: if you were to make one turning move on the Rubik’s cube per second, it would take 1.4 trillion years to go through every permutation - considerably longer than the time the universe has been in existence. Yet, the very best ‘speed cubers’ can solve the problem in under six seconds, while any legal permutation can be resolved in 20 moves or fewer.

With sales of more than 350 million units, there is no toy more ubiquitous. One in seven of the population of the planet will have at some point at least attempted to solve the puzzle. However, it might never have become the global obsession that it is today. This is largely because when the first Magic Cube (as it was originally called) went on sale in a toyshop in Budapest in 1977, Hungary was still a Communist country concealed behind the Iron Curtain. As all exports and imports were tightly regulated under the regime, it was no easy task to bring the game to the world’s attention. Yet, by a strange quirk of fate, the cube gained cult popularity on the international mathematics academic conference circuit. Meanwhile, an expat Hungarian entrepreneur by the name of Tom Kremer managed to display a cube at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 1979, leading to the international launch of the now renamed Rubik’s cube (which was delayed because the Hungarian manufacturer did not produce the toy to Western safety and packaging standards).

The concept of a scrambled cube did not start with Rubik. Early in the 1970s inventors Larry Nichols and Frank Cox separately came up with different ideas for rotatable puzzles (using magnets). It was not until Rubik built his teaching tool that aimed at solving the structural problems of moving parts independently without the mechanism falling apart, that things started to accelerate.

Accelerate they did, to the point where the cubes featured in Spice Girls’ videos and, inevitably, on the ‘Big Bang Theory’. Ernö Rubik went on to become president of the Hungarian Engineering Academy and then European Union ambassador for creativity and innovation. In 2014 he began a six-year lecture tour of ‘Beyond Rubik’s Cube’, talking about science, technology and engineering.

Next month: Volkswagen Beetle

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