Happy birthday, Rubik’s Cube!

Rubik’s Cube turned 40 this week. In a reflection of how much faster the world moves today than it used to, I remember Rubik’s Cube from the early 1980s, when it was a big, national craze. I had no idea at the time that it was invented in 1974 and took six years to reach the U.S. market. I asked for one for Christmas in 1981, and so did everyone else I knew. We all got one. And none of us could solve it. Granted, some of that may have been because we were in grade school, and the early years at that. My best friend’s older sister, who was in sixth grade or so, had a book, and she could solve it with the book’s help.

It was even the subject of a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon. I only watched it once or twice. It turns out it’s not easy to make engaging stories about a six-sided puzzle. There were tons of cheap knockoffs out there too, but unlike the knockoffs of today which are generally regarded as better, the 1980s knockoffs were generally worse. After a year or three, the craze died down. We moved in 1983, and I don’t remember anyone in our new town talking about Rubik’s Cube. Mine ended up in a drawer. I’ve looked for it a few times over the years, but never found it.

Rubik's Cube
In the early ’80s, every kid had one of these. Even if most of us couldn’t solve it.

But even though fads fade from public view, they don’t necessarily go away completely. Lionel trains were a huge craze in my dad’s time. The fad went away but the brand is still alive and maintains a following to this day. There’s no reason for Rubik’s Cube to be any different. For the problem the Rubik’s Cube was originally designed to solve, it never lost effectiveness. It just ceded its position as an object of mass entertainment to whatever came next.

When I started a new job in late 2005, the first question my new supervisor asked me was how fast I can solve the Rubik’s Cube. I had to admit that I’d never tried as an adult. He was unimpressed.

He saw the Rubik’s Cube as an engineering puzzle. For me, the Rubik’s Cube is another piece of 1980s nostalgia, along with Pac-Man and Mario, Atari and Nintendo, Swatch watches and… Transformers.

Not that that I think that’s a bad thing. This past weekend I was at an estate sale run by a couple who are a year or two older than me. I went down into the basement, and they had Men at Work‘s Business as Usual record–yes, on vinyl–playing on the turntable. As Colin Hay sang “Down by the Sea,” I could picture myself back in my best friend’s basement, re-enacting Star Wars for the billionth time in between Rubik’s Cube sessions while his sister listened to New Wave music. It was 1982 again, and I stayed there longer than I really intended.

They get a lot of sales like that, and one of these days I’ll find a Rubik’s Cube at one of them. When I do, I just might buy it.

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