September 28, 1981 12:00 PM

Not since the Gordian knot has mankind puzzled so, and that was in 333 B.C. For the past year, Erno Rubik, a 37-year-old junior professor of architecture in Budapest, Hungary, has laid waste to the nerves and patience of the civilized world with the fiendishly complex, infuriatingly insolvable—except for an elite few—plastic torture device called Rubik’s Cube. The 3″ agglomeration of 26 facets in six bright colors challenges its owner to twist its parts into a random pattern—and then pick his way through billions of combinations back to the original, in which each side is a solid color. “I think of it as a game, a teaching aid, a sport, a puzzle and a piece of art,” says Rubik. “It has all of these characteristics.”

In 1980 4.5 million of the Cubes were purchased worldwide—at prices from $5 to $15—and it will be four times that many in 1981. They are sold in all kinds of shops and on street corners, and crowds gather wherever they are displayed. In Rubik’s homeland, a controlled economy has not kept up with the demand for manufacture of the toy—and Hungarians tend to buy three or four at a time when they are available. Inevitably, the Cube has spawned imitators, as well as all manner of spin-offs—from T-shirts (reading “Rubik’s Cube Cures Sanity”) to competitions to a host of booklets outlining possible solutions.

Now Rubik has decided to destabilize the world even further with another brainchild—Rubik’s Snake. A twisting, sinuous plastic creation, the Snake can be made and remade in hundreds of shapes. Rubik insists that when it hits the American market this fall, it should not cause epidemic nervous collapse. “The Cube is a puzzle,” he explains. “The Snake is just a plaything.”

The world is probably not ready for another Rubik puzzle; already Cube madness has had massive repercussions. A West German woman is filing for divorce because her husband didn’t pay enough attention to her after she gave him a Cube for Christmas. From England comes the first reported case of Rubik’s Thumb, a tendinitis brought on by protracted Cube twisting. One frustrated American Cubist became so incensed that he placed the offending object in his driveway and ran over it with his truck. Other desperate players have been known to disassemble their Cubes and put them back together again—solved. The actual number of potential combinations, other than the correct one, is about 43 quintillion—43 followed by 30 zeros. Says a spokesman for Ideal Toy, the American licensee: “If we had put that on the package, no one would have believed it.”

The inventor of the Cube is an obscure don at Budapest’s Academy of Applied Arts, who earns only an estimated $1,820 a year from his teaching. Even though he licenses the rights to the Cube at modest fees, Rubik stands to make $800,000 for 1980-81. In Hungary alone, a country of 11 million people, 1.5 million Cubes have been sold, leading Rubik to muse happily: “What if that rate were achieved in China?”

Though he is considering buying a Western-size automobile and a vacation home, he and wife Rozsa continue to live with their daughter, Anna, in a modest two-bedroom apartment on top of his father’s house. “I’m trying to do everything to avoid this thing changing my life completely,” says Rubik.

He has been fascinated with shapes since childhood. Son of a glider designer, he preferred drawing to studying and planned to become a sculptor before switching to architecture. He confesses a certain fascination with his Snake, saying: “It’s constantly shifting, so it’s closer to sculpture.” Her husband, reports Rozsa, “is always drawing and making models of anything that comes into his mind. He’ll bring it to the table, and he’s stayed up all night upon occasion. It supersedes all else.”

The Cube actually came into being over several weeks in 1974. “I cannot say how it cropped up,” says Rubik. “It just happened in the back of my mind.” He eventually used it as a teaching aid to give students experience in dealing with three-dimensional objects. The original model was made of wood, and it took the inventor a month to align the colors. Rubik obtained a Hungarian patent in 1975, and the Cube landed in stores there two years later. It was a hit at the 1979 Nuremberg Toy Fair in West Germany, and a Hungarian-born toy entrepreneur arranged for Rubik to market his product internationally.

As the world’s first Cubemeister—the term applied to anyone who can return all six sides to their original alignment—Rubik can solve the puzzle in about a minute. He is far from the greatest living expert; Mike Musker, a 16-year-old British schoolboy, has done it in one-third that time. “What the best method is remains open to question, and my guess is that it hasn’t been found yet,” Rubik says, adding: “I’m not working on it.” After all, he asks, “Was the person who thought up the piano the world’s greatest pianist?”

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