Meet the mysterious inventor of the Rubik's Cube

Erno Rubik, who devised one of the world's most popular and enduring puzzles, opens up about his creation in his new book, "Cubed." This is perhaps Rubik's first public foray

By Alexandra Alter
Published: Sep 17, 2020

book cubed bErno Rubik at his home in Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 10, 2020. Rubik, who devised one of the world’s most popular and enduring puzzles, opens up about his creation in his new book, “Cubed.” Image: Akos Stiller/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,” cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter wrote in 1981. “It is an ingenious mechanical invention, a pastime, a learning tool, a source of metaphors, an inspiration.”

But even as the Rubik’s Cube conquered the world, the publicity-averse man behind it has remained a mystery. “Cubed,” which comes out this week, is partly his memoir, partly an intellectual treatise and in large part a love story about his evolving relationship with the invention that bears his name and the global community of cubers fixated on it.

“I don’t want to write an autobiography, because I am not interested in my life or sharing my life,” Rubik said during a Skype interview from his home in Budapest. “The key reason I did it is to try to understand what’s happened and why it has happened. What is the real nature of the cube?”

Rubik, 76, is lively and animated, gesturing with his glasses and bouncing on the couch, running his hands through his hair so that it stands up in a gray tuft, giving him the look of a startled bird. He speaks formally and gives long, elaborate, philosophical answers, frequently trailing off with the phrase “and so on and so forth” when circling the end of a point. He sat in his living room, in a home he designed himself, in front of a bookshelf full of science fiction titles — his favorites include works by Isaac Asimov and Polish writer Stanisław Lem.

He speaks about the cube as if it’s his child. “I’m very close to the cube. The cube was growing up next to me and right now, it’s middle-aged, so I know a lot about it,” he said.

“Here’s one,” Rubik said, retrieving it from the coffee table, then fiddling with it absent-mindedly for the next hour or so as we spoke.

As he was writing “Cubed,” his understanding of his invention evolved, he said.

“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.”

Or you can start at the beginning.

Erno Rubik was born on July 13, 1944, about a month after D-Day, in the basement of a Budapest hospital that had become an air-raid shelter. His father was an engineer who designed aerial gliders.

As a boy, Rubik loved to draw, paint and sculpt. He studied architecture at the Budapest University of Technology, then studied at the College of Applied Arts. He became obsessed with geometric patterns. As a professor, he taught a class called descriptive geometry, which involved teaching students to use two-dimensional images to represent three-dimensional shapes and problems. It was an odd and esoteric field, but it prepared him to develop the cube.

In the spring of 1974, when he was 29, Rubik was in his bedroom at his mother’s apartment, tinkering. He describes his room as resembling the inside of a child’s pocket, with crayons, string, sticks, springs and scraps of paper scattered across every surface. It was also full of cubes he made, out of paper and wood.

One day — “I don’t know exactly why,” he writes — he tried to put together eight cubes so that they could stick together but also move around, exchanging places. He made the cubes out of wood, then drilled a hole in the corners of the cubes to link them together. The object quickly fell apart.

Many iterations later, Rubik figured out the unique design that allowed him to build something paradoxical: a solid, static object that is also fluid. After he gave his wooden cube an initial twist, he decided to add color to the squares to make their movement visible. He painted the faces of the squares yellow, blue, red, orange, green and white. He gave it a twist, then another turn, then another, and kept twisting until he realized he might not be able to restore it to its original state.

He was lost in a colorful maze, and had no clue how to navigate it. “There was no way back,” he writes.

After he cracked it, Rubik submitted an application at the Hungarian Patent Office for a “three-dimensional logical toy.” A manufacturer of chess sets and plastic toys made 5,000 copies. In 1977, Rubik’s “Buvös Kocka,” or “Magic Cube,” debuted in Hungarian toy shops. Two years later, 300,000 cubes had sold in Hungary.

Rubik got a contract at an American company, Ideal Toy, which wanted 1 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.”

Almost as quickly as the craze started, it sputtered out. Cheaply made counterfeits flooded the market, and demand fizzled. In 1986, The New York Times published a deflating article that bordered on an obituary, calling the cube “a bright meteor that burned out.”

Rubik started his own design studio in Hungary and began to work on new projects and revive abandoned ones, including puzzles called the Snake and Rubik’s Tangle.

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.

These days, he spends his time reading sci-fi, playing table tennis, gardening and tending to his cactuses: “They have wonderful flowers and long life spans.” He is not done with the cube. He still reflects on its possibilities — not an improvement to its design, but on its potential applications.

“I am not doing it because I want to become a champion, or because I am expecting new discoveries from playing it. At the same time, I am expecting some new potentials for the basic ideas,” Rubik said. “I see potentials which are not used yet. I’m looking for that.”

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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