Rubik's Cube Inventor Writes A New Book: It's Full Of Twists And Turns

Oct 8, 2020

Hungarian architect Ernő Rubik takes play very seriously — and suggests we could all lighten up. "Most people are taking most of the things too seriously," he says. "They really can't enjoy life because of that."

If Rubik's name sounds familiar that's because he's the inventor of the Rubik's Cube — that fun (and frustrating) colorful cube puzzle.

"If you don't really mind if you are winning or losing, you enjoy the play ..." he says. "I learn most from my failures — that is the way to learn, that is the way to be successful."

And Rubik knows a thing or two about success. He was obsessed with puzzles and solving problems as a kid. He invented the cube in 1974, and when it was first sold in Hungarian toy shops in 1977 it flew off shelves.

His new book, Cubed: The Puzzle of Us All, tells the whole story.

A mother and son wearing Rubik's Cube costumes walk in flooded Saint Mark's Square on the last day of Carnival on March 4, 2014, in Venice, Italy.
Marco Secchi / Getty Images

In the first three years that the cube was licensed to an American company, it sold 100 million copies around the world. Rubik never imagined it would have that kind of appeal. People tended not to buy difficult puzzles, he explains.

But the Rubik's Cube, "made it really fashionable to have a puzzle," he says. "To play with it and to show to others: I can do it ... how to learn it."

(Solution books were also quite popular in those years, he says.)

But Rubik found the toughness of the puzzle — the billion ways to scramble it – deeply motivating. "I found it difficult. More difficult, more enjoyment to solve it," he says.

And he loved that the cube tapped into a community of people worldwide who felt the same way. "It had some kind of magnetic force for us," he says. "I had the feeling I'm not alone in the world ... they like the same level as I like."

Mark Cavendish of Great Britain works on a Rubik's Cube on the start line prior to stage seven of the 2016 Tour de France.
Chris Graythen / Getty Images

Plenty of us have never solved a Rubik's Cube, but world competitions abound for speed cubers. Real die-hard players can unscramble it in mere seconds!

And plenty of cubers get creative, adding additional layers of challenge. Sankavi Rathan of Canada recently solved 30 Rubik's Cubes — one handed while also hula hooping.

Que Jianyu solved three Rubik's Cubes — while juggling them — in November 2018.

YouTube

Cubers solve underwater, blindfolded, with their feet, on unicycles ... and of course robots have gotten pretty good at them, too.

A robot works on a Rubik's cube at the trade fair grounds in Hanover, Germany in 2007.
David Hecker / DDP/AFP via Getty Images

For Erno Rubik, it's pure joy that he has hooked generations of kids and adults with his twist turning puzzle.

A competitor at the Rubik's Cube World Championship in Sao Paulo, Brazil on July 17, 2015.
Nelson Almeida / AFP via Getty Images

Bo Hamby and Reena Advani produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So did you know that the Rubik's Cube has been around for nearly a half-century? The Hungarian architect Erno Rubik invented it in 1974. He was obsessed with puzzles and solving problems as a kid, and he turned that love into a toy that became iconic across generations.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) There's never been a puzzle quite like Rubik's Cube. And America may never be the same. The Rubik's Cube from Ideal - 25 million Americans have made it a part of their lives. How about you?

GREENE: It was first sold in Hungarian toy shops in 1977, and it flew off the shelves. And then in the first three years that it was licensed to an American company, it sold 100 million copies around the world. It was not an object Erno Rubik ever imagined would have that kind of appeal. Now, there are a billion ways to scramble it. And Rubik told me that boggling fact was a deep motivator for him.

ERNO RUBIK: I discovered the potential of the object as a puzzle, and I liked it. So I found it difficult, more difficult, more enjoyment to solve it and had some kind of magnetic force that I had the feeling I'm not alone in the world, that I can reach them and they will like the same level as I like it. So I was not planning to change my profession or to became a puzzle maker because it was really a surprise. It shocked people.

GREENE: What was so new and different, do you think, that made such a difference?

RUBIK: Usually people love buying difficult puzzles. It made fashionable to have a puzzle, to play with it and and to show to others I can do it or how to learn it and so on and so forth. Probably that was why the solution books was so popular in that time and millions of them were sold.

GREENE: It was a community. I mean, it was a way to connect to other people who were sharing in this.

RUBIK: Around the turn of the century, really, a very strong community was born on the Internet in connection with the cube. And based on that born the new sports, the speed cubing and based on the people who like to do it.

GREENE: Now, while a lot of people have never solved the Rubik's Cube, myself included, world competitions abound. Real diehard players can unscramble it in mere seconds. For Erno Rubik, it's pure joy that he is hooked both kids and adults with his twist-turning puzzle.

You're an inventor. You're a professor. You're an architect. You're a designer. You're a husband, father, grandfather, businessman, writer - I mean, all these things. But you also talk about that you're a man who likes playing, and you say that play is one of the most serious things in the world. I love that. Why is playing important for all of us?

RUBIK: Mostly people are taking most of the things too seriously. They really can't enjoy life because of that. So all the time they would like to achieve something. They have forced themselves to achieve something. So to do something playfully, if you don't really mind you are winning or losing, you enjoy the play. The problem is if they are not able to win or we are losing, that's - it became very sad. And I learn most from my failures. That's the way to learn. That's the way to be successful.

GREENE: That's Erno Rubik. He has written everything you might want to know about his Rubik's Cube, which is something he very much thinks of as one of his children. It's all in a new book. It is called "Cubed: The Puzzle Of Us All." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.