It’s the 30th anniversary of the Rubik’s Cube, a toy that drove millions of people crazy.
I got my first Cube in the early 1980s. Over these three decades I have bought, gifted, lost and destroyed over a dozen Cubes—mostly imported pieces because the ones made in India would fall apart. I bought some for my father (who gifted them to other children), and others for my son who, like most children his age, took one apart to check how it works. My most endearing image is of an old man sitting on a bench at Cuffe Parade in Mumbai, fiddling with the Cube. This was soon after it was launched abroad. I remember it because I was lusting for one.
My friend’s teenage son calls it “a prehistoric toy”. In a way he is right: Hungarian architect Erno Rubik invented it during the days when Hungary was still a Communist country. Wired magazine has described it as “last century’s most-beloved geek toy”.
You hold it in your hands and the first thing that strikes you is the simplicity of its design (it’s a permanent exhibit in New York’s Museum of Modern Art). It’s a cube with six sides, each side a different colour. You jumble it and it resembles a colourful jigsaw. The goal is to twist and turn the squares so that each side becomes one single colour again.
It seems an easy task to achieve. But when you play with it a bit you will either call it a waste of time, or get hooked. There are 43 quintillion (that’s 43 followed by 18 zeroes) possible combinations, and only one solution. And despite these devilish odds, some 350 million Rubik’s Cubes have been sold since its launch in 1980.
Cult toy: About 350 million Rubik’s Cubes have been sold since its launch in 1980.
In the sci-fi movie Wall-E, the cute little robot has a Cube in his collection of ancient memorabilia and when he shows it to EVE, she solves it in a flash. There are annual “Speedecubing” competitions and I did not believe that someone could solve it in just 8 seconds till I saw a YouTube video. There’s this legendary tale of a man who took 26 years to solve the Cube, and when the last piece fell into place, he wept.
So how did this impossible puzzle become a cult toy and capture the imagination of generations? If you enjoy solving puzzles, you’ll find it compulsive. It’s the same feeling you get when you see a half-finished crossword or a Sudoku with a few empty squares. If you don’t get it right, the clue haunts you the whole day. Next morning, you check the answer even before you’ve had a look at the front page. It’s an addiction: Some do the crossword or try the Sudoku, and others love puzzles. It’s a challenge that gives you a feeling of accomplishment when you solve it.
I have one on my desk, and I often fiddle with it when I am lost in thought. I have made a few serious attempts to solve it, but haven’t progressed beyond one side. You don’t have to be a genius to reach this far, but still, it’s a nice feeling. In the days when there was no Google and you couldn’t search for a solution, I picked up a second-hand copy of The Simple Solution to Rubik’s Cube, but ultimately gave it away because I didn’t want to spoil my fun; I still believe that one day I will be able to complete it.
These days you can do a Google search or, better still, go to YouTube to find a step-by-step solution. Just one video—“How to solve a Rubik’s Cube”—has been viewed nearly 15 million times. If you don’t want to torture yourself, this seems the smart thing to do. But then, where’s the challenge?
Last year, Erno Rubik, the man behind this madness, launched a puzzle. It’s called Rubik’s 360 and has six colourful balls in a transparent plastic sphere. The trick is to put the balls into matching slots. It’s said to be as hard to solve as the Cube.
I went to a toy shop to buy one, but for reasons I find hard to explain, it didn’t click. The magic was missing. It doesn’t have the feel of the Cube. Could be I am biased. Or, as my friend’s son implied, “prehistoric”.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at firstname.lastname@example.org