Rubik’s Cube Inventor Opens Up About His Creation in New Book ’Cubed’ - The New York Times
The first person to solve a Rubik’s Cube spent a month struggling to unscramble it.
It was the puzzle’s creator, an unassuming Hungarian architecture professor named Erno Rubik. When he invented the cube in 1974, he wasn’t sure it could ever be solved. Mathematicians later calculated that there are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 ways to arrange the squares, but just one of those combinations is correct.
When Rubik finally did it, after weeks of frustration, he was overcome by “a great sense of accomplishment and utter relief.” Looking back, he realizes the new generation of “speedcubers” — Yusheng Du of China set the world record of 3.47 seconds in 2018 — might not be impressed.
“But, remember,” Rubik writes in his new book, “Cubed,” “this had never been done before.”
In the nearly five decades since, the Rubik’s Cube has become one of the most enduring, beguiling, maddening and absorbing puzzles ever created. More than 350 million cubes have sold globally; if you include knockoffs, the number is far higher. They captivate computer programmers, philosophers and artists. Hundreds of books, promising speed-solving strategies, analyzing cube design principles or exploring their philosophical significance, have been published. The cube came to embody “much more than just a puzzle,” the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter wrote in 1981. “It is an ingenious mechanical invention, a pastime, a learning tool, a source of metaphors, an inspiration.”
“On the way to trying to understand the nature of the cube, I changed my mind,” Rubik said. “What really interested me was not the nature of the cube, but the nature of people, the relationship between people and the cube.”
Reading “Cubed” can be a strange, disorienting experience, one that’s analogous to picking up and twisting one of his cubes. It lacks a clear narrative structure or arc — an effect that’s deliberate, Rubik said. Initially, he didn’t even want the book to have chapters or even a title.
“I had several ideas, and I thought to share this mixture of ideas that I have in my mind and leave it to the reader to find out which ones are valuable,” he said. “I am not taking your hands and walking you on this route. You can start at the end or in the middle.”
Rubik got a contract at an American company, Ideal Toy, which wanted one million cubes to sell overseas. In 1980, Ideal Toy brought Rubik to New York to a toy fair. He wasn’t the most charismatic salesman — a shy architecture professor with a then-limited command of English — but the company needed someone to show that the puzzle was solvable.
Sales exploded. In three years, Ideal sold 100 million Rubik’s Cubes. Guides to solving the cube shot up the best-seller lists. “There’s a sense in which the cube is very, very simple — it’s only got six sides, six colors,” said Steve Patterson, a philosopher and author of “Square One: The Foundations of Knowledge,” who has written about the cube as an embodiment of paradoxes. “In a very short period of time, it becomes unbelievably complex.”
Reports of the cube’s death were premature. In the 1990s, a new generation of enthusiasts discovered it. New speedcubing records were set, as were records for solving the cube underwater, while skydiving, while blindfolded, while juggling. The World Cube Association now hosts more than 1,000 speedcubing competitions each year.
Rubik himself wouldn’t make the cut. He can solve the cube in about a minute — an improvement from that first, agonizing process — but he’s not interested in speed. “The elegant solution, the quality of the solution, is much more important than timing,” he said.