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Expert Comment: Rubik's Cube at 40

0154 Dr Jacqui Miller Thursday 22 May 2014

As the Rubik's Cube celebrates its 40th birthday, Senior Lecturer in Media Dr Jacqui Miller examines the toy's enduring appeal.

When Rubik’s Cube arrived in the UK at the beginning of the 1980s, it was received as a child’s novelty toy in the best tradition of plastic gems such as ‘clackers’ (Google them if you weren’t around in/can’t remember the late 1960s). When my young daughter brought home a Cube, I glanced indulgently as she ‘played’ with it. But hang on, this was no toy, but a highly challenging mathematical puzzle brought into being when Hungarian architect ErnÅ‘ Rubrik designed a model to explain three-dimensional geometry, a model that just happened to have 43,000,000,000,000,000,000 variants for its coloured squares. The cube immediately struck a chord with the popular psyche, and as a historian of film and visual culture, I have been fascinated by its continued resonance, marked by media coverage of its fortieth anniversary this week.

The rueful puzzlement of those who could just not understand how ‘a few’ coloured tiles could cause such grief was captured almost immediately by ‘Mr Rubik’, a humorous song by veteran British comedy group, The Barron Knights. From then on, solving the Cube became a by-word for super-intelligence in a range of television programmes from The Simpsons to Seinfeld, and films from art-house neo-noir, Brick to environmentally aware animation, Wall-E.

In the decades since its invention, Rubik’s Cube has gained an affectionate association with the 1980s and is a familiar outfit for fancy-dress parties. However, these associations can be used ideologically. The Pursuit of Happiness a film which, in the last months of the George W. Bush presidency, sought to re-inscribe the ‘greed is good’ Wall Street era as a positive phenomenon, has Will Smith proving his worth as a potential broker firm intern by completing a Cube.

Cultural historians will see the post-modern irony in this. Because Rubik’s Cube was invented at the height of the Cold War, its introduction to the West was delayed by several years. Indeed, The Barron Knights hinted at the sinister superiority of the Soviets in the line ‘Is that some kind of Russian name? Mr. Rubik Rubik Rubik’. Given the warm humour shown to the Cube in the intervening years, and its integration into Western culture, it is ironic that as its fortieth anniversary is being celebrated, once more East-West relations are re-freezing over Ukraine, and some branches of the British media are implying we should worry about Hungarian immigration. 

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