1980's toy rubiks cube
Photo by Joshua Coleman on Unsplash

The True Story Behind the Rubik’s Cube

One of the most enduring icons of the 1980s is the Rubik’s Cube, a relatively cheap puzzle/toy that captured the imagination of the world in the early years of the decade.

The Rubik’s Cube has been called the most popular toy ever, with more than 350 million sold worldwide since it first went on the market in 1980. By the mid-’80s, it was estimated the one-fifth of the world’s population had played with a Rubik’s Cube.

Original TV Commercial For Rubik’s Cube 1980 (Source: YouTube)

The six-sided cube drove thousands crazy as they tried to figure out the best way to solve it. The plastic cube’s six sides had nine squares on each side. The stickers on the squares were yellow, white, red, blue, orange and green and the goal was to return to cube to its original state, with each side a solid color. A pivot mechanism allowed users to spin the squares in order to mix up — and, ultimately, bring back together — the various colored squares.

The puzzle was invented by a Hungarian sculptor, professor and architect named Ernő Rubik, who created the first prototype for what he then called the Magic Cube in 1974. Still in his 20s and living with his parents, Rubik came up with the idea as a teaching aid for a design class he was teaching.

“When you are studying from a book, lots of people go straight to the end to look for the answers. But that’s not my style,” Rubik told CNN in 2012. “For me, the most enjoyable part is the puzzle, the process of solving, not the solution itself.”

Rubik says he was intrigued by the three-dimensional aspect of the cube, as well as its mobility, which played into the geometric concepts he was interested in.

Former Rubik’s Cube World Record Holder – 5.25 seconds (Source: YouTube)

“Usually structures are pieces that are connected in some way or another, and usually these connections are stable things. So all the time ‘A’ is connected to ‘B,’ ” Rubik said. “But with the structure of the Rubik’s Cube, you realize these elements are moving very freely, but you don’t understand what keeps the whole thing together, so that was a very interesting part of it.

While today the task of creating the Rubik’s Cube would be much simpler, with the advent of computer 3D modeling and printing. But for the first prototype, Rubik used basic wood and rubber bands, cutting and drilling the pieces himself in a workshop at the university at which he was teaching. Once he’d built the prototype, it took the inventor more than a month to solve his own puzzle, as he spent time researching, developing theories and testing.

“It’s not something like a jigsaw puzzle where you start to work on it, spend some time on it, and in the end it’s solved, it’s finished. If you find a solution with the cube, it doesn’t mean you find everything,” Rubik said. “It’s only a starting point. You can work on and find something else, you can improve your solution, you can make it shorter, you can go deeper and deeper and collect knowledge and many other things.”

Rubik dubbed it the Magic Cube. It was a big hit with his students and Rubik realized it wouldn’t be difficult or expensive to mass market the Cube, so he applied for a patent and began working with a manufacturer that produced plastic chess pieces. The Magic Cube was showcased at a toy fair in Germany in 1979 where Ideal Toys signed a deal with Rubik to distribute it worldwide. Seeking a name that stood out more, Ideal rechristened the puzzle the Rubik’s Cube in honor of its creator.

By 1981, the Rubik’s Cube craze was in full swing, pushed forward by a persistent TV ad campaign. “Speedcubing” clubs — where people competed to see who could solve the puzzle the fastest — began popping up all over the world less than a year after the first Cubes hit the market. The fad spawned a cottage industry of in-demand Rubik’s Cube-solving books; one of them, The Simple Solution to Rubik’s Cube, was the best selling book of 1981, with over 6 million copies sold.

Rubik’s Cube Television Commercials 1980’s (Source: YouTube)

At the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, a 6-foot Rubik’s Cube was showcased. And in 1983, ABC ran the Saturday morning cartoon Rubik, The Amazing Cube, paired as an hour-long block of programming with another of-the-moment cartoon based on the Pac-Man video game. The Rubik cartoon featured a flying cube (with feet and a face!) with magic powers that came alive when all of its sides matched. The voice of “Rubik” (as the magic cube was named) was provided by Ron Palillo, best known for his role as Horshack on Welcome Back, Kotter.

Rubik, The Amazing Cube ran until December of 1983, at which point the craze had died down considerably, with sales plummeting. But Rubik’s Cubes remained on the market and have experienced moments of revival over the years. And it lives on in pop culture as a go-to ’80s symbol, appearing in everything from The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory and Seinfeld to movies like Armageddon, Dude, Where My Car? and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Written by Mike Breen

Mike Breen is a veteran writer and editor with nearly 30 years of experience. He was the longtime music editor and managing editor of Cincinnati altweekly CityBeat and his writing has also appeared in music publications like Spin, Creem and the U.K.’s NME. If you need a ringer for music trivia night, you should definitely call him.