Exhibit / January 17, 2017
In the early days of 1981, a new toy made its way to the West over the Iron Curtain. A few years earlier, a Hungarian architecture professor named Ernő Rubik had developed a “Magic Cube” while tinkering with ways to express rotation in 3D space in a single object. It wasn’t until he scrambled this 3×3 cube’s constituent parts that he realized his thought experiment prop could also be a puzzle. While the now-patented cube languished on Hungarian toy store shelves for a few years, Rubik sent out feelers to Western companies to develop his invention as a commercial toy. At the 1979 Frankfurt Toy Fair, Rubik’s agent debuted the cube in the West. Within a year, it was snatched up by Ideal Toys of New York.
In the Scientific American cover feature, cognitive theorist Douglas Hofstadter writes in-depth about all aspects of the Cube in the discursive, free-flowing style that made his Pulitzer-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1979) such a smash hit. Hofstadter’s Scientific American essays written after the flush of post-Pulitzer publicity were so popular, in fact, that they were collected in their own book, 1985’s Metamagical Themas. While word of the Cube was beginning to filter through academic circles in mathematics and computer science throughout 1980, Hofstadter acts as a proselytizer for the Cube to a wider audience. Hofstadter talks about the cube’s history, construction, and other historic puzzles of the same ilk (including the “15 puzzle,” which has been around since the 1870s). Throughout his discussion of the math and topology of the Cube, Hofstadter helps popularize the terminology and notation systems of the growing grassroots community of Cube enthusiasts (“cubists”). He even engages in some flights of fancy on how the constituent “cubies” of the Cube resemble the subatomic physics of quarks. The Scientific American article helped not only solidify the Cube’s popularity with the highly technically-educated audience, but aided tremendously in getting word-of-mouth out to a wider toy, game, and puzzle enthusiast audience.
And this priming of the pump paid off in a major way. The Rubik’s Cube was the hit toy of 1981, selling hundreds of millions of units worldwide. Mass speed-cubing contests followed throughout 1981 and 1982, with competitions televised on early ’80s “reality show” That’s Incredible. The Cube even became a character on its own Saturday morning cartoon, 1983’s Rubik The Amazing Cube. Ernő Rubik remained in Hungary, inventing and selling several other variations on the Cube, as well as editing puzzle magazines and opening his own industrial design firm in the mid-1980s.