The Man, The Puzzle Maker, The Inventor
The Story of the Rubik's Cube
When Erno Rubik first stumbled upon his idea for a three-dimensional puzzle contained in a Cube in 1974, he was a lowly paid Professor of Architecture, earning less than $200 per month, with no specific desire to the change the world or attain financial riches.
He did, however, have two pieces of knowledge ingrained in his psyche and mental makeup that would turn his Rubik’s Cube invention into the bestselling toy of all time and make his march towards stardom a case study in passion and entrepreneurship.
The first piece was gleaned from his father, a renowned aircraft designer in Hungary who developed a range of gliders in the 1930s, acquiring several patents along the way.
His father’s success demonstrated to a young Erno that protecting your product was a key step towards financial security, especially when you live behind the Iron Curtain. His father’s determination to solve complex problems with simple engineering solutions PLUS his desire to protect his work stayed with Erno as he made his way into teaching.
The second piece in the puzzle was a personal philosophy he shared with all inventors I meet across America:
The problems of a puzzle or invention reflect the problems of life. By solving the riddle, by always looking for a solution, you take one step closer to solving problems in your personal life and making dormant dreams a reality.
In this respect, Erno was fearless, driven by a passion for using forms in architecture to detect new movements and possibilities that could impact the world around him. While sharing this pursuit with students he stumbled upon the magic of the Cube, a three-dimensional enigma that would ultimately hold 43 quintillion ways to scramble the independently moving squares that existed therein.
His first challenge was to find a way to make the blocks move independently without falling apart. 26 cubes were cobbled together with elastic bands and basic wooden blocks. Almost immediately the light bulb went off his head:
The crude device he manipulated with his fingers, elegantly connected order and chaos. The contraption both puzzled and delighted him as he pondered the contradiction between simplicity and complexity.
I should also point out that Erno was a realist, practical in nature, and not necessarily a perfectionist. He did not have access to modern-day CAD (computer-aided design) software to prototype and engineer his cubes. Instead, he used a school workshop and wood as a material to get his prototype workable. “I made it with my hands. Cutting the wood, drilling holes, using elastic bands. It was a very simple thing.”
Many inventors fall into a common trap, believing that they need to perfect the prototype or design before they can acquire a patent. In fact, this is not the case especially since the United States Patent Office moved from a First-to-Invent to a First-Inventor-to-File model.
One of my recent clients - Carlos Enrique Rodriguez - who invented an ornamental hitch cover for boat trailers, acquired a patent simply on the basis of some rough sketches he initially presented to me. Further variations were incorporated into the provisional patent which allowed his ‘imperfect’ invention to receive protection under American patent law. Presently Carlos has perfected the manufacturing process and developed a marketable product which can be seen in my client success stories. He thus perfected his idea AFTER receiving his First-Inventor-To-File Patent.
As Erno inspected his Magical Cube (which by the way was the initial name for his device) he did not just see a puzzle; he saw a study in geometry - perhaps in how the whole universe is structured. It would not be a stretch to say that he immediately fell in love in with the Cube and knew instinctively the world would, too.
Budding inventors should take careful note of this pivotal moment, because this love affair would give him the determination, willpower and insight to take his idea to market even though conventional wisdom dictated that the invention had no right to succeed.
Erno began scrambling the pieces in his hand and then proceeded to do what 350 million people (millions more, perhaps, by the time you read this) across the planet would eventually emulate:
Solve the puzzle!
“The question was not if it’s possible to solve the puzzle, but rather to discover a repeatable method to do it,” said Erno.
After 30 days of mental gymnastics he cracked the code, a task that would be reduced to less than 6 seconds by competitive teenagers nearly 40 years later. Erno considered his magic cube a piece of art and an architectural marvel. It was also a wonderful educational tool he could use in his classes.
He reasoned to himself that If he found such joy in solving its mysteries, surely others would too?
“I felt if I could produce it at a good price something good will happen. I was not dreaming about success, about numbers or figures. I just had a feeling I wanted to share with the world and I felt it would be good."
He spent the next year acquiring a patent for his device later offering this advice to modern day inventors:
“You need partners who are capable of helping you both on the legal part and also the financial part as well.”
His father had taught him the necessity of using a specialist patent attorney to protect his ideas, and the Cube certainly qualified. The process was kickstarted in 1975 with the Hungarian Intellectual Property Office. However, one misstep by his team was the failure to apply for an international patent which gives the inventor one year to file patents overseas to fully safeguard the IP. I go over some strategies for protecting your invention outside the United States in one my sister blogs.
It is also worth noting that his patent would later be challenged by another American inventor who felt his Cube design had precedence. Others followed too, but ultimately courts ruled in Erno’s favor stating it was a valid, protectable patent. The final approval for the Hungarian’s design materialized around 1977 but a lot had happened in that two-year period.
When Erno first showed off his design to large toy companies in the Soviet Block and around Europe, many were perplexed by its small size and lack of noise while being manipulated. There was also zero advertising around the product and decision makers thought the general public would find the toy too difficult to use or solve. The general consensus was that the Cube had a very limited audience.
Undeterred, Erno began visiting toy fairs around Europe until one day he bumped into Thomas Kremer - a game designer, publisher and entrepreneur - in a backwater section of the Nuremberg Toy Fair.
Kremer was struck by the fiendishly complex array of possibilities inherent in the Cube. It was an addictive experience and he became an instant fan.
Sagely, after intense negotiations, he licensed the design to the Ideal Toy Company, a former titan on the verge of bankruptcy.
Its last hit had been the Teddy Bear way back in 1903.
Years later, Erno would remark that it was not an easy or simple process to get his makeshift Cube from the wood shop into the hands of enthusiasts and gamers around the world. It took nearly six years which impacted the power of the patent:
“When you start the process, you need to make the next step within a year, because otherwise you lose the patent. But in the end, we partly solved the problem because we used my name as a trademark, and this too is a good tool for protection. I was lucky because in the New York phone book there is less than five people who have the same name!”
Indeed, New York was a key milestone for both Erno and the Ideal Toy Company, as the trademarked “Rubik’s Cube” began to draw hordes of fanatical fans in a way not seen since the Hulu Hoop.
Their visits to local toy and trade shows amplified the mania and the Cube boom was in full swing.
By 1983, Ideal Toy Corporation had sold around 350 million cubes making it the biggest and fastest selling toy of all time. Every TV station, kid, candy store, engineer, plumber and president were singing its praises and trying to crack the code.
The Cube showed up in films and national events.
It was pure, unadulterated mania.
Many claim its zenith came with the first official World Rubik’s Cube Championship held in Hungary, featuring 19 speedcubers from around the world. Just like the fidget spinner that recently captured America’s interest, everybody seemed to be finding some way to use or promote it.
At this stage, Erno was earning roughly $1000 per day in royalties from the licensing arrangement. Not a bad fee for struggling University lecturer!
Rubik's Cube Inventor
“I was not expecting such figures. It felt like I had won the lottery, like when you find money on the street.
In 1986, The New York Times reported that Erno had received permission from the Hungarian government to open up a private business with 20 employees tasked with designing new buildings, workflow charts and, of course, puzzles.
Others cashed in too, including the youngest author to ever reach the New York Times bestseller list, Patrick Bossert.
At just thirteen-years old he published “You Can Do The Cube” in 1981 after a father of his friend, a Penguin book executive, read his four-page manual that was making the rounds at school.
It would sell over 750.000 copies again highlighting that entrepreneurship is not limited to any age group!
While Patrick was making his fortune, I too was plotting my own Cube Revolution. Aged Twelve at the time I thought I was incredibly cool and stylish. I also harbored a powerful, unrelenting desire to create a ROUND Rubik's Cube. I literally had pages and pages of sketches and drawings under my bed illustrating my cubical marvel.
This nerdy pursuit was dealt a swift and painful death when my mother took me to the local mall one day where I happened to see a spherical cube on display in the shop window. On the verge of tears, I was convinced another kid had stolen my idea.
The hurt look on my face triggered a rush of emotion in my mom who instantly began crying in a VERY vocal manner!
Embarrassed I dragged her out the mall assuming the temporary mantle of adult. I cover this painful and humorous episode in my keynote address to the Inventor’s Society of South Florida (ISSF).
As the mania peaked in the 1980s, the Cube became a victim of its own success since just about everybody had one. Interest died, soon becoming a fad as thousands of cubes piled up unsold in warehouses from New York to London. There was however one section of Cube sub-culture that still lingered, continuing to keep a low level of Cube manufacturing underway: Speedcubers.
These young prodigies were hooked on solving Rubik’s Cube-Style puzzles -- sometimes in less than six seconds -- during the competitions that sprung up as the mainstream mania died. Annual events were held in Las Vegas and other locales, until eventually Cube mania again peaked at around 15 million units sold worldwide in 2008.
Side Note to Inventors: If we fast-forward to the present day, the Cube is again making waves, with new speedcubing competitions popping up around the world that challenge the limits of human problem solving. Some of these Cube disciples can even solve the puzzle using their feet (while blindfolded). The Cube is also now digitized in exciting ways. New software entrepreneurs are tapping into the latest wave of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (A.I) advances to build fascinating phone apps incorporating bluetooth technology and algorithmic alchemy, teaching users how to solve the Cube quickly. It also allows them to connect with other fans online in a variety of community and gaming models. This convergence of toys, puzzles, cloud computing and A.I illustrate that old products with aging patents may be re-born in the Internet Age in ways not imagined by the original inventor. Onwards and upwards, inventors!
Erno himself claimed his best time at solving the Cube was around one minute.
“Usually people say if you can create a piano, you must be a good piano player, but it is not true. They are different type of human activities and need different capabilities,” said Erno.
The Cube Unlocked
As we reflect on Erno’s accomplishments as an inventor and the lessons learned from success of the Cube, we’re reminded that one must have a love affair with one’s own invention even when no one else does.
While the status quo may negate your creation and find reasons to knock its appeal or potential future sales, the chances are good that if you feel passionately about your idea, someone else will too.
Erno’s chance meeting with Kremer at Nuremberg also shows us the value of having partners who open up new doors and opportunities. It also confirms the power of patents and their importance in protecting your idea before you make your first steps in manufacturing, distribution and marketing.
Finally, it reminds us that one must be fearless and brave when delivering your idea to the world. It took Erno six long years to get his magical cube to market but I think we all agree his passion and resilience paid off.
I will leave these parting words below from Erno to inspire you to Dare Mighty Things. They are timeless and invaluable to any inventor, young or old:
If you are curious, you’ll find the puzzles around you. If you are determined, you will solve them.