A Twist of Fate: The Invention of the Rubik’s Cube

Happy 40th birthday, Rubik’s Cube!

I’ve practically grown up with the toy, which I first encountered around 1981 when my elementary school classmate Matt dazzled us with his ability to solve it in mere minutes while the rest of us struggled to master the 3×3 cube. We didn’t have the advantage of online instructions or videos to give us helpful tips, since we didn’t have the World Wide Web yet. So puzzle-loving kids and adults invested hours solemnly twisting the cube segments over and over again. This was at the height of the toy’s popularity in the U.S., which quickly waned but never quite died.

Original Rubik's cube prototype.

Original Rubik’s cube prototype.

Today the toy and its inventor are celebrated in Beyond Rubik’s Cube, a traveling exhibition at the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey. Born 70 years ago on July 13, 1944, Hungarian Ernő Rubik is the man behind the Cube. His mother, Magdolna Szántó, was a poet and his father, Ernő Sr., was an aircraft engineer known for his glider designs. He said of his father: “Beside him I learned a lot about work in the sense of a value-creating process which has a target, and a positive result too.” (1) Young Ernő studied sculpture, design, and architecture in Budapest and eventually became a professor of architecture.

In 1974 he thought up the idea for the Rubik’s Cube in order to help teach 3-dimensional design to his students. Initially, he created a 3x3x3 rotating cube out of wood. “There was a workshop in the school, and I just used wood as a material because it is very simple to use and you don’t need any sophisticated machines. So I made it by just using my hands—cutting the wood, drilling holes, using elastic bands and those kind of very simple things.” (2) The following year he applied for a patent, which he received in 1977. Since this was Soviet-era Hungary, when the “Iron Curtain” divided Eastern and Western Europe, Rubik’s options were limited for manufacturing and marketing his invention. He worked with a small Hungarian company Politechnika to start selling colorful plastic versions of his “Bűvös Kocka,” translated into English as “Magic Cubes.”

A disassembled Rubik's cube, via wikimedia commons.

A disassembled Rubik’s cube, via wikimedia commons.

Buvos Kocka packaging.

Buvos Kocka packaging.

Rubik’s big breakthrough came when an expat Hungarian entrepreneur took the Magic Cube to the Nuremberg Toy Fair in Germany in 1979. There Tom Kremer, who owned a games and toys company called Seven Towns Ltd., saw the Cube and believed it could be a great success on the toy market if he could just find the right company to license it. Fluent in Hungarian and English, Kremer negotiated a deal with the Ideal Toy Company, who renamed it the “Rubik’s Cube” and launched it on the international market in 1980.

Hungarian patent.

Hungarian patent.

The Rubik’s Cube was an immediate worldwide sensation, winning many Toy of the Year awards in 1980 and 1981. Approximately 100 million were sold by 1982, but almost as quickly as it rose to fame the Cube seemed doomed to become a one-hit wonder. By 1986, The New York Times reported it had been “retired to the attic, the garbage heap and, with a bow to its elegance and ingeniousness, to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.” (3) However, the colorful toy never really disappeared, and over time it morphed into a popular culture icon. Today the number of Rubik’s Cubes sold worldwide is estimated at about 350 million.

Hungarian stamp honoring the Rubik's cube.

Hungarian stamp honoring the Rubik’s cube.

In Hilton, New York, Northwood Elementary School students are petitioning to get the Cube inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. “The project started in Jenny Ames’ and Julie Fiege’s sixth grade classes in November… Students worked in groups to pick a toy that they thought should be inducted, conducted research and then presented their argument to a panel of judges…The presentation included criteria set by the Hall of Fame—icon status, longevity, discovery and innovation. The Rubik’s Cube won! So now the entire C Core—six teachers and 160 students—is working to get the Cube nominated for its 40th birthday this year.” (4) Hopefully, the Rubik’s Cube might win induction into the Toy Hall of Fame in November also to honor Ernő Rubik’s 70th birthday.

Northwood Elementary School students

Northwood Elementary School students.

For teachers and families, there is now an educational program called “You Can Do the Rubik’s Cube” focusing on math learning and 21st Century Skills. As Ernő Rubik said, “If you are curious, you’ll find the puzzles around you. If you are determined, you will solve them.” (5)


(1)    http://www.create2009.europa.eu/ambassadors/profiles/erno_rubik.html
(2)    http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/10/tech/rubiks-cube-inventor/
(3)    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/26/nyregion/rubiks-redux-a-colorful-cube-puzzles-anew.html
(4)    http://www.hilton.k12.ny.us/news/RubiksCube.htm
(5)    http://rubiks.com/history

Sorting It Out

NMAH, Archives Center, Elmer Gates Papers Collection #: 1123 Box 1 Folder 11

Elmer Gates's Chevy Chase, Maryland Laboratory, undated. NMAH, Archives Center, Elmer Gates Papers Collection

Tucked away in the quiet residential neighborhood of Chevy Chase, Maryland, psychologist and inventor Elmer Gates worked in his personal laboratory at the turn of the 20th century. Though he is an obscure figure in the history of science today, Gates (1859-1923) was known in his lifetime for his original ideas about experimental psychology, his many eclectic inventions, and his strong interest in educating children. He was particularly influenced by the beliefs of Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel (1792-1852), the creator of kindergarten. Froebel’s educational toys, known as the Froebel Gifts, were designed to give children the opportunity for self-directed exploration and learning through play.

Patent drawing (US patent 741,903), educational toy or game apparatus, October 20, 1903. NMAH Archives Center, Elmer Gates Papers Collection

In 1903, Gates patented an educational toy (U.S. Patent 741,903) that was very much in the Froebel mold. Still in widespread use today, it was a wooden box with openings for sorting different geometrical shapes (e.g., square, circular, triangular). Gates expected children to “discriminate” between different geometric shapes, so each piece fit into only one matching hole. “This mind-training toy,” he wrote in his patent application, “can be advantageously used to amuse and instruct children even before they can speak a word or at least after they have commenced to learn to talk.”

The wooden sorting box was part of Gates’s plan for his children’s education. This included five training stages—image stage, idea stage, concept stage, reason stage, and thought stage (the box was used in the image stage). Elmer Jr., Roger, Donald, and Phebe tested Gates’s prototypes in the Chevy Chase lab, and Gates, in turn, tested the children. In a November 16, 1902, Chicago Tribune article, John Watkins, Jr., wrote of visiting Gates’s Chevy Chase laboratory where “in a well lighted room, several little ones were at work amid growing plants, and in the brightness of a benevolent smile from a bust of Froebel.” In the same article, Gates said that he “wanted his children nourished by science, trained by science, developed by science, taught by science, and schooled by science.”

Gates theorized that repeated psychological tests would increase mental skill, so he created other (unpatented) apparatus to test his children. These included a ring-toss game; a color wheel to teach young eyes to discriminate between various shades and tints; an electric sonometer (an instrument that measured the sensitivity of hearing) to train their ears; an aesthesiometer (a device for measuring tactile sensitivity) to train their sense of touch; and a pendulum chronograph (a type of watch) to evaluate muscular movement.

Photograph, wooden sorting box, circa 1900. NMAH Archives Center, Elmer Gates Papers Collection

No doubt even Gates’s well trained and discriminate small charges managed to fit a square peg into a round hole.

These images provide a glimpse into Gates’s educational training regime, including a photo of his daughter Phebe demonstrating the wooden sorting box. Read more about Gates in the Archives Center’s finding aid.