History of the 3x3x3 Rubik's cube

Ernő Rubik was born in Budapest in 1944 to an eminent Hungarian family. His father, Ernő Rubik senior, was an aeronautical engineer who designed many gliders and was awarded the Kossuth prize (Hungary's highest honour). Rubik first studied sculpture, matriculating from the Fine and Applied Arts Gymnasium in 1962 with a distinction in sculpture. He then shifted to architecture, obtaining a diploma from the Budapest Technical University in 1967. He then did a post-graduate diploma in interior architecture at the Academy of Applied Arts. Upon completing this course in 1971, he was appointed a lecturer at the Academy and began teaching three-dimensional design, among other subjects.

Rubik found that his students, even the post-graduates, had great difficulty with three-dimensional visualization. Consequently he was thinking about various exercises for his students. Cutting a cube with various planes is a fairly standard exercise and leads to the well-known 23 and 33 arrays.

Rubik has a life-long interest in mechanisms, undoubtedly assimilated from his father. While contemplating the 23 and 33 arrays about May of 1974, this interest led him to ask: "How can I make the faces move?" Within six weeks, he had a solution - first for the 23 and then for the 33 (which is much easier than the 23). It took him a month to solve the cube when he made his first model. He applied for a patent on 30 January 1975.

About March of 1975 he approached Politechnika (Politechnika Ipari Szövetkezet) which made plastic chess sets and similar games (later, Polytechnika was renamed as Politoys). By late 1977, they could supply Trial, the major toy distributor in Hungary. Trial made an initial order for 5 000 Magic cubes (as they were initially named) and anticipated that advertising would be required to sell them. Instead, they found that the problem was getting enough to meet demand. The cube won a prize at the Budapest International Fair in 1978, which led to a number of foreign orders. In the same year, Hungarians were using the cubes as hard currency which they could take or send abroad! Hungarian customs officials asked departing people: "How many cubes have you got?"

The 1975 prize from the Hungarian Ministry of Education and Culture was awarded to Rubik personally for all his work. In 1979, the cube received a prize from the same institution. It was the Toy of the Year for 1980 in the UK, Germany and France.

At the end of 1979, Ideal Toy, a major US and international toy firm best known for introducing the teddy bear some years ago, took over the distribution for most of the western world. They planned to call it 'The Gordian knot' but someone came up with the name "Rubik's cube". At that time, there was no other toy named after its inventor - a unique tribute to a unique invention!

The stiffness and other technical problems with the earlier Hungarian production were resolved in 1979. One year later, the retooling of the production was suggested and carried out by the Hungarians. The resulting product was lighter, smoother in finish and much easier to turn. The original Hungarian production, like much of the unlicensed Taiwanese production, was so stiff that cubists developed 'Cubist's thumb' or 'Rubik's wrist'.

The new version began to appear in mid-1980 and the resulting runaway success was well chronicled. For the US alone, Ideal sold about 4.5 million cubes in 1980 and anticipated sales of about 10 million in 1981. The Taiwanese were reported to have sold about three times as many! There are reports of a Munich shop selling 800 Cubes in an hour and of a Wolverhampton (UK) shop selling 2 000 in an hour. Market traders sold 1 000 easily on Saturday. During the great cube famine of early 1981 when Ideal's stocks were completely depleted and the Taiwanese knock-offs had not arrived, I heard of a second hand cube market and offers of £15 for a cube.

Rubik's name had become a household word in many languages and had been entered into the Oxford English Dictionary and the Brockhaus Lexicon. UK customs even had a new category: Rubik's cube and the like.

The cube is said to be Hungary's biggest single earner of foreign currency. With all the production sent to the West, the cube was almost unobtainable in the Eastern block. An East-German magazine printed an article telling how to make your own Rubik's cube! Recent reports indicate it is available and widespread in Poland.

Rubik consciously applied the fundamental principles of design when devising the cube. In particular, he aimed to make each piece as simple and compact as possible. He believes form follows function. He is particularly pleased with the spring-loaded screws, which provide the dynamic tension to hold the cube together and to take up wear.

Rubik has succinctly analyzed the features of the cube which made it unique among puzzles when it appeared:

  • the pieces (cubies) stay together
  • more than one piece (cubie) moves at a time
  • the pieces (cubies) have orientation as well as position (permutation)

I have not yet been able to think of any previous puzzle with the three features Rubik has pointed out. Now we have many variations and many new puzzles based on these points. Perhaps we could now call them "Rubik's Rubric".

Several earlier attempts to make Magic cubes as well as several later independent designs were registered. The measure of Rubik's success is that none of the other designs for the 33 had yet been produced until the introduction of the Rubik's cube.

Predecessors of the Rubik's cube

The first French book on the cube (Le Cube Hongrois by André Deledicq and Jean-Baptiste Touchard) reports: "In fact, inspector general Semah says he played with a similar cube (but in wood) in 1920 in Istanbul, then about 1935 in Marseilles (with a cube of five white faces and one green face)". Touchard says he went to see Semah, who is now an old man, but who seemed to recognize the cube as an old friend. In view of the Middle Eastern tradition of puzzle rings and the Far Eastern tradition of puzzle boxes and other wooden puzzles, I think there is some probability that a wooden cube might have been made by some craftsman. The cost of wooden cubes would have been prohibitive and only a few (one?) would have been made.

In 1960, a mathematics teacher William O. Gustafson, from Fresno, California, invented the 23 Magic sphere, but only conceptually at first. Gustafson designed a grooved sphere, with pieces (cubies) sliding on it. He obtained US patent no. 3 081 089 on 12 March 1963 for a 'Manipulatable toy'. However, his first version is unsymmetric in that the spherical-triangular pieces have a lip only at one corner. The eight lips meet in fours at two antipodal groove crossings and reach in under the groove edges to provide the holding mechanism. It is difficult to see that this does give a fully moveable cube or sphere. It does seem that this is a rather loose mechanism and he gives a second, symmetric, version where each piece has lips at all three corners. Gustafson's pieces do not abut edge to edge - one can see the interior sphere between any two adjacent pieces. Consequently, one can relate the exterior pattern to the inner sphere and this gives 24 times as many overall patterns as for an ordinary 23. Interestingly, he does not attach any piece to the central sphere - instead he has detents to let you align the pieces with the grooves on the central sphere. It may be that the need to do this required the interior sphere to be visible.

Larry D. Nichols, of Arlington, Massachusetts, filed for a US patent for "Pattern forming puzzle and method with pieces rotatable in groups" on 4 March 1970. This was granted as patent no. 3 655 201 on 11 April 1972. This is for a 23 cube with a magnetic mechanism. However, the magnetic mechanism works by separating the cube in half, then turning and putting the halves back together. If you try to rotate a half, magnetic repulsion pushes the halves apart. This is achieved by putting three small bar magnets on the inner faces of each cubelet. So the mechanism is not at all like Rubik's. In particular, one can cheat too easily by disassembling the cube.

The New York Times reports that Nichols' firm, Moleculon Research Corp., did try to market Nichols' idea in 1969 but wouldn't divulge the secrets until the patent came through. It was rejected by all the firms approached, including Ideal, generally because of the secrecy.

Frank Fox of Bletchley, Bucks, filed for a UK patent on an "Amusement device" on 9 April 1970 and this was published as UK patent no. 1 344 259 on 16 January 1974. This was for a 33 in spherical shape, using tongue and groove linking to hold the 26 exterior pieces together, leaving the center hollow.

German designer and puzzle distributor Uwe Mèffert had been thinking about the model for a combinatorial puzzle in the shape of pyramid (Pyraminx, as we call it today) around 1970.

Almost all text on the page was taken and edited from the Cubic Circular 1 (published in 1981), 5&6 (1982) and 7&8 (1985) magazines by David Singmaster.