Call the six-sided Rubik’s Cube puzzle a “toy” at your own risk: Ernő Rubik, the Hungarian who invented it in 1974, prefers to think of it as a piece of art. If so, the 350 million-plus cubes sold over the past 40 years might make it one of the most recognizable creative works in history. Check out some facts about its origins, the bizarre cartoon adaptation, and why Will Smith probably deserves royalties.
1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED THE MAGIC CUBE.
In 1974, 30-year-old Ernő Rubik was a professor of architecture in Hungary when he had the idea of constructing a handheld puzzle game based on geometry that could help students understand spatial relations. The first prototypes made of wood blocks and paper clips were encouraging; pairing with a toymaker in Hungary, Rubik saw his original Magic Cube get modest distribution. In 1980, when the Cube was licensed by Ideal Toy Company, developers changed the name to Rubik’s Cube; they felt “Magic Cube” invoked ideas about witchcraft.
2. RUBIK IS NOT A GREAT RUBIK’S CUBER.
Although the puzzle has inspired millions of people to find new and efficient solutions to making sure the sides align, its inventor is not among them. In a 2012 interview with CNN, Rubik admitted it took him more than a month to solve the Cube when he first invented it; it still took him a minute to solve it when he began practicing. That statistic that wouldn’t wow any of the modern-day “Cubers,” who strive for times under 10 seconds.
3. THERE ARE 43 QUINTILLION POSSIBLE COMBINATIONS.
With six sides representing nine blocks of a single color—orange, yellow, green, red, white, and blue—a Rubik’s is said to hold 43 quintillion potential configurations. That’s 43,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible ways to prompt a lengthy series of profanities.
4. A 13-YEAR-OLD KID WROTE A BESTSELLING STRATEGY GUIDE.
With Rubik’s Cube hysteria gripping the nation in the early 1980s, players were desperate for a strategy that could expedite a solution and make them seem brainy in front of their peers. Their savior: 12-year-old Patrick Bossert, who authored a book, You Can Do the Cube, in 1981 and wound up on the New York Times bestsellers list. Originally meant for his friends, one of Bossert’s pals showed it to his father, who was an editor at Penguin Books; it quickly sold more than 750,000 copies.
5. THERE WAS A SATURDAY MORNING ANIMATED SERIES.
Despite the fact that the modest Rubik’s Cube had no narrative, personality, or sentience, ABC still ordered a full season of an animated series about its adventures. Rubik, the Amazing Cube aired 13 episodes on Saturday mornings in 1983. The puzzle was given legs, a face, and magical abilities. To complete the 1980s-ness, Menudo was enlisted to perform the title song.
6. THE YELLOW SIDE WAS A HEALTH RISK.
When Rubik’s Cube made its way to England in 1982, health officials discovered there was more of a risk than just going out of your mind trying to solve it: the plastic discs affixed to the squares were found to contain unsafe levels of lead. The biggest perpetrator: yellow, which, depending on where it was manufactured, had at least 26,250 ppm (parts per million), far more than the 2500 ppm allowed.
7. SOMEONE MADE A DIAMOND-ENCRUSTED CUBE.
For the puzzle’s 15th anniversary in 1995, Diamond Cutters International created a fully-functional Rubik’s Cube made out of 185 carats of diamonds. Worth $1 million at the time, the company also issued 2500 silver editions for $2000 each.
8. IT STARTED AN ART MOVEMENT.
With Cubism already installed in art circles, the arrival of Rubik’s Cube led to a variation: Rubik’s Cubism. The playful name refers to the practice of using solved Cubes to create a mosaic effect in artwork. In 2009, Josh Chalom crafted a homage to Da Vinci’s Last Supper by using over 4000 Cubes; a later piece, after Michaelangelo’s Hand of God, took over 12,000 Cubes, measured 29-by-15 feet, and weighed a ton. To take the sting out of his supply budget, Chalom bought Rubik’s knock-offs from China at $1 each.
9. WILL SMITH MAY HAVE HELPED POPULARIZE IT AGAIN.
While the Rubik’s Cube has always been a perennial seller, some years have been better than others. In 2006, sales experienced an uptick after the puzzle was featured in The Pursuit of Happyness: Will Smith's character is seen solving it quickly to let a potential business associate know he’s got some brain power. “That Rubik’s scene was in the trailer, and it blew up from there,” Joe Sequino, a spokesman Winning Moves, which shares Cube manufacturing in America with Hasbro, told The New York Times. “It was the perfect confluence of events, with the movie and with a new generation 27 years later getting turned on to the cube.” In 2008, sales hit a high of 15 million globally.
10. SOMEONE SOLVED IT WHILE FALLING FROM A PLANE.
With so many Rubik’s world records, finding a new angle can be difficult—so Dan Knights decided to get a new perspective. In 2003, the Cube enthusiast jumped from a plane at 12,000 feet, giving him roughly 45 seconds of free fall time to solve the Cube before his parachute would have to be opened. (He drilled a hole in the Cube and tied it to a loop on his wrist so it wouldn’t fall.) The jump—which was commissioned by cable network VH1—was successful: Knights solved it in 32 seconds.
11. THE WORLD RECORD IS 4.90 SECONDS. (WITH HANDS.)
In the time it takes to rear back for a sneeze, 14-year-old Lucas Etter can manipulate the puzzle in a world record time of 4.90 seconds, which he set in November 2015. But you don’t necessarily need to use your hands: Jakub Kipa can solve it in 20.57 seconds using only his feet, a variation that some Cubers find distasteful.
12. SOME PEOPLE CAN SOLVE IT BLINDFOLDED.
If you’re not shamed enough by the sight of a pre-adolescent solving a Cube faster than you thought possible, you should try watching them do it while blindfolded. Seven-year-old Chan Hong Lik solved one in 2016 by first memorizing the placement of the squares and then obscuring his vision so he can’t see the Cube in motion. It took him just over two minutes and 21 seconds to finish.
13. THE WORLD’S LARGEST IS A TALL TASK.
Hobbyist Tony Fisher earned a Guinness World Record for his massive Rubik’s Cube, which measures 5 feet across and 5 feet tall. It’s also solvable: Fisher is seen doing it on video (above).
14. YOU NEED TO KEEP IT OILED.
Serious Cubers know that a Rubik’s Cube that hasn’t been properly maintained is going to hamper their efforts. The official Rubik’s web site advises “Cube Lube,” their proprietary silicone formulation that won’t rot the plastic components. And no, it’s not considered a performance enhancer: greasing your puzzle is allowed in the World Championship, held every two years.
15. YOU’LL NEVER BEAT A ROBOT.
In a battle of two of the most iconic plastic blocks of all time, the Rubik’s Cube came up slightly short. In 2014, engineers David Gilday and Mike Dobson constructed a Cube-solving robot from LEGO brick playsets and a Samsung Galaxy S4 cell phone. The brick-bot took care of its opposition in 3.253 seconds. While impressive, a conventionally-designed robot still holds the record for efficiency: two Kansas City Cubers have a device that can solve it in a recognized 1.2 seconds, with the duo constantly striving to beat their own record. Currently, that stands at .900 seconds.