“If you are curious, you’ll find the puzzles around you. If you are determined, you will solve them.”
Did you have a Rubik’s cube when you were little? Have you ever solved it?
(And we’re not talking about pulling the stickers off and putting them back on in the right order…)
Now, did you know that Ernõ Rubik, the inventor of the infamous Rubik’s cube, did not invent it to be a best-selling toy? It’s true, and in this Learning from InvENtors post, we’re going to tell you his story.
Ernõ Rubik was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1944, and has lived in Hungary his entire life. His parents were well-educated; his father was an aircraft engineer and his mother was a poet. Rubik initially studied sculpture at college but later went back to study architecture at the Academy of Applied Arts and Design. After graduating, he worked as an architect between 1971 and 1975 and later returned to become a professor of Interior Design.
The creation of The Rubik’s Cube
In the spring of 1974, Rubik created the now well-known puzzle as an interesting design problem for his students to help them understand three-dimensional problems.
The Rubik’s Cube consists of 26 small individual cubes, joined together into one big cube consisting of six sides, with each side having nine squares. Each layer can twist and overlap with the other layers. Any three squares in a row can join a new layer by being twisted either horizontally or vertically, but not diagonally.
Rubik initially tried to hold the cubes together with elastic bands but this structure did not twist properly so he individually carved and put together the little cubes into one big cube. Each side of the cube was of one uniform color but different sides were of different colors.
Once Rubik had assembled the cube, he started twisting and turning each side so that the uniformity of colors was lost and the cubes seemingly appeared to be in random order. The real challenge came when Rubik tried to set the pieces together back in their original position but realized that the order of the little cubes had been so disturbed that he could not retrace his steps and put them back together.
When asked about the puzzle, Rubik said that it was, “like after a nice walk when you have seen many lovely sights you decide to go home, after a while I decided it was time to go home, let us put the cubes back in order. And it was at that moment that I came face to face with the Big Challenge: What is the way home?”
Rubik knew that by randomly twisting and turning the cubes he could never revert it to its original form so he tried to work out a logical solution. It took him over a month to solve it.
At that time, he didn’t know that his “Magic Cube” – “Buvos Kocka” in Hungarian – would take the world by storm.
The puzzle of the patent
Unfortunately for Rubik, the intellectual property process was just as puzzling as his puzzle…
Here is the history according to an article published in the the NYU Journal of Intellectual Property and Entertainment law:
Rubik applied for a patent the following year under the name “Magic Cube.” By 1979, the Ideal Toy Corporation picked up the gadget and began selling it around the world with the moniker, “Rubik’s Cube.”
When Rubik applied for a patent for his Magic Cube in Hungary, he failed to apply for an international patent. Per the Paris Convention of 1883, someone getting a patent in one country has a year to file for patents in other countries to fully safeguard his or her invention.
Unfortunately for Rubik, great minds think alike. In the United States, William Gustafson patented a spherical “manipulatable toy” in 1963 (US3081089). Larry Nichols had patented a 2x2x2 “Puzzle with Pieces Rotatable in Groups” in Canada two years before Rubik began to figure out his contraption. Nichols was also granted an American patent for his invention in 1972 (US3655201). Two years before that another inventor by the name of Frank Fox applied for a patent in the United Kingdom for an invention called the “Spherical 3x3x3” (1344259), and Terutoshi Ishige received a Japanese patent for a 3x3x3 in 1976 (55-819).
Nichols’ patent became quite a challenge. Moleculon Research Corp. obtained Nichols’ patent and sued the Ideal Toy Company several times in the 1980s. In the end, it came down to the fact that the Rubik’s Cube did not use a transitional step of “engaging eight cube pieces as a composite cube.” The courts granted that while the Ideal Toy Company’s 2x2x2 Pocket Cube may have infringed on Nichols’ puzzle patent, the 3x3x3 Cube that we know and love/hate was a valid patent.
To complicate matters, the Rubik’s Cube patent for its original mechanism has since expired. Seven Towns, which has since picked up the Rubik’s Cube, now preserves its rights to the puzzle with a trademark applied for in 1999 with Europe’s Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (OHIM). This trademark dealt with the physical shape and structure of the cube.
In its most recent challenge, the European Union court handed down a decision involving Seven Towns and Simba Toys. Simba Toys, a German manufacturer, had tried to challenge the Seven Towns trademark by pointing out a distinction between the shape of puzzle and the 3-D ability to rotate aspects of the puzzle. Fortunately for Seven Towns, the court held that the Rubik’s Cube was distinctive enough in terms of its grid structure and its internal mechanism rotating capability from other 3-D puzzles that the patent was valid. In short, other companies can still make 3-D puzzles that shift and rotate—so long as they’re not shaped like the actual Rubik’s Cube and use the same rotation mechanism.
The “Magic Cube” became more and more popular in Hungary during the late 1970s. Ernõ Rubik realized the potential of his invention. But – in communist Hungary in the 1970s, imports and exports were tightly controlled. The answer? Toy fairs.
Its global impact began in 1980 at toy fairs and conferences in London, New York, Paris and Nuremberg. Enthusiastic mathematicians gave the “Magic Cube” its first global stage. Toy specialist Tom Kremer was at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 1979. He saw the power and potential of the Cube and wanted to sell it to the rest of the world.
Tom Kremer’s passion and belief in the Cube convinced the Ideal Toy Company to distribute the “Magic Cube”.
They wanted one important change…a new name. The Rubik’s Cube’s global launch was in 1980. The newer Cubes were also half the weight of the earlier models making solve times much faster.
Between 1980 and 1982 an estimated 100 million cubes were sold worldwide.
- There are more than 43 quintillion ways to scramble The Rubik’s Cube! In fact, there are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possibilities.
- If you had one cube for each scramble position and laid them all side-to-side, they would stretch 261 light years from Earth. Or you could use them to cover the Earth… in 273 layers!
- If you turn The Rubik’s Cube once every second, it will take you 1.4 trillion years to go through all the permutations. (The universe is just 14 billion years old!)
- Every legal permutation of The Rubik’s Cube can be solved in 20 moves or less.
- The first world championship was held in 1982 – with a winning solve time of 22.95 seconds.
- The current world record for solving The Rubik’s Cube is an amazing 4.69 seconds! (Sam Ponce, USA).
- A robot solved The Rubik’s Cube in 0.637 seconds.
- Over 350 million Rubik’s Cubes have been sold worldwide. It’s the best-selling toy of all time.
- It is estimated that less than 5.8% of the world’s population can solve The Rubik’s Cube.
- The most valuable cube ever made is the Masterpiece Cube, valued at $1.5 m. This 18-carat cube with lots of precious stones (including rubies and emeralds) was created in 1995 by Diamond Cutters International.
- The first Rubik’s Cube was sold in 1975 in a Budapest toy shop. At that time, it was called the Magic Cube. It was renamed The Rubik’s Cube is 1980.
- The Rubik’s Cube won Toy of the Year in 1980 and 1981.
We’ve said it before, some of the world’s most famous inventions were created for very different reasons. You never know when an idea will take off.
“A good puzzle, it’s a fair thing. Nobody is lying. It’s very clear, and the problem depends just on you.”