Ernó Rubik, 76, is the Hungarian creator of the Rubik’s Cube. The idea came to him almost out of nowhere: he simply asked himself if it might be interesting to put small cubes together so that they remained joined but could move individually. A professor of architecture, he has written an idiosyncratic and gripping memoir about his life and the indomitable career of the Cube, which has been handled (although not solved) by one in seven people worldwide.
What was your favourite toy growing up in Budapest – and what sort of a boy were you?
I was a solitary child and loved toys. I’d find toys in books and make models of them. The more difficult, the better. I hope I’m much the same now– although I was cleverer back then.
When you first marketed the Cube, did you have any idea how successful it would be?
Not at all – but I was optimistic. The trade thought it would be too difficult to sell, but one of the mysteries of the Cube is that so many people have been interested in such a difficult puzzle.
Surely the difficulty is partly what made it a success, giving a sense of achievement to those who could solve it?
The Cube’s character is contradictory, a mix of simplicity and complexity. The Japanese slogan for it goes: “A Minute to Learn, a Lifetime to Master.” You never finish it – there will always be new challenges/discoveries. The design was also important, a good example of having everything you need and nothing more.
A philosophy for life?
Yes, I think so!
You’ve said you inherited your father’s gifts (he was a flight engineer). But I loved your tremendously affectionate description of your mother in your memoir. Was she alive when you invented the Cube?
Yes – we were living together. It was after my parents’ divorce. My sister had left home to become a doctor. My mother was a wonderful person. She lost most of her family during the second world war but stayed positive. She was no good at puzzles but had an artistic view. She loved the Cube’s appearance, believed in its potential and thought I was the most talented child in the world.
How does knowing the Cube has been handled by one in every seven people in the world make you feel?
It’s very satisfactory. There are so many economic, cultural and political difficulties in the world. The Cube gives me hope that in the end people are clever enough to solve their problems and survive.
Do you invariably prefer order to chaos?
Harmony should be our goal, although we don’t know why it makes us feel as we do when we see harmony in nature – breeze on the lake or the sunrise. There are so many beautiful elements in nature and, sometimes, in people too. Harmony is a reachable goal.
Are you a perfectionist?
Perfection is not reachable, but your target should be to get as close to it as possible.
Why do you see the Cube as masculine?
The Cube is a middle-aged boy nowadays, though in another sense forever young. The Cube’s form is not soft. He is strong but not aggressive, he patiently depends on you for what happens next.
You were a professor of architecture… what is the most important thing to consider when building a house, and are your houses like puzzles?
A house should never be a puzzle – everything should be near at hand. You do not live in a house, you live with it. A person completes a house with content and emotion. Too many architects try to over-regulate. Nobody can be sure what I would like to do in my house.
I can see on Zoom your wonderful terrace with trees beyond – is this part of the house you designed?
Yes – you are seeing my garden in Budapest, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. It’s divided into two parts: Pest and Buda. The Buda side, where I live, is the greener side.
The 2018 world record for solving the Cube in 2018 was Yusheng Du in 3.47 seconds. What’s your fastest time?
I’m not practising for speed. But I can do it in roughly a minute. I’m not especially proud of that, but probably in my age group, I’m one of the best…
Do you find robots solving the Cube in record times pleasing?
Artificial intelligence and its connection with the Cube fascinates me – we don’t know how our minds work, it is a great challenge to create a machine able to surpass our thinking capability.
Solutions to the Cube have been systematised through algorithms. Why does the Cube continue to appeal to children and adults?
Children still discover the Cube for themselves. In our digital age, people say young people lose contact with the real world but while there are so many applications for the Cube – 3,000 or more – they can, interestingly, play with these applications with the Cube in their hands.
It was the manufacturers who named it after you – is it ever burdensome having your name associated with it?
It’s not like being known as Jack the Ripper! The Cube is no black sheep.
Do your grandchildren play with it?
They’ve just started but my youngest grandchild – I have six – is only a year old…
You’ve said you often ignore interviewers’ questions to address what you think they ought to have been asking. What’s the most important question you’d put to yourself
What will the world will be like in 100 years? In the past, people knew what to expect for their grandchildren but we don’t know what’s coming.
Will we still be playing with Rubik Cubes?
Why not? For sure. Even if we’re able to create a super-intelligence, it doesn’t
mean we’ll have lost interest in the Cube.