Rubik’s Cube

Rubik's cube

Rubik’s Cube is a 3-D combination puzzle invented in 1974 by Hungarian sculptor and professor of architecture Ernő Rubik. Originally called the Magic Cube,  the puzzle was licensed by Rubik to be sold by Ideal Toy Corp. in 1980 via businessman Tibor Laczi and Seven Towns founder Tom Kremer, and won the German Game of the Year special award for Best Puzzle that year. As of January 2009, 350 million cubes had been sold worldwide making it the world’s top-selling puzzle game. It is widely considered to be the world’s best-selling toy.

In a classic Rubik’s Cube, each of the six faces is covered by nine stickers, each of one of six solid colours: white, red, blue, orange, green, and yellow. In currently sold models, white is opposite yellow, blue is opposite green, and orange is opposite red, and the red, white and blue are arranged in that order in a clockwise arrangement. On early cubes, the position of the colours varied from cube to cube. An internal pivot mechanism enables each face to turn independently, thus mixing up the colours. For the puzzle to be solved, each face must be returned to have only one colour. Similar puzzles have now been produced with various numbers of sides, dimensions, and stickers, not all of them by Rubik.

Although the Rubik’s Cube reached its height of mainstream popularity in the 1980s, it is still widely known and used. Many speedcubers continue to practice it and other twisty puzzles and compete for the fastest times in various categories. Since 2003, The World Cube Association, the Rubik’s Cube’s international governing body, has organised competitions worldwide and kept the official world records.

In the mid-1970s, Ernő Rubik worked at the Department of Interior Design at the Academy of Applied Arts and Crafts in Budapest. Although it is widely reported that the Cube was built as a teaching tool to help his students understand 3D objects, his actual purpose was solving the structural problem of moving the parts independently without the entire mechanism falling apart. He did not realise that he had created a puzzle until the first time he scrambled his new Cube and then tried to restore it. Rubik obtained Hungarian patent HU170062 for his “Magic Cube” in 1975. Rubik’s Cube was first called the Magic Cube (Bűvös kocka) in Hungary. The puzzle had not been patented internationally within a year of the original patent. Patent law then prevented the possibility of an international patent. Ideal wanted at least a recognizable name to trademark; of course, that arrangement put Rubik in the spotlight because the Magic Cube was renamed after its inventor in 1980.

The first test batches of the Magic Cube were produced in late 1977 and released in Budapest toy shops. Magic Cube was held together with interlocking plastic pieces that prevented the puzzle being easily pulled apart, unlike the magnets in Nichols’s design. In September 1979, a deal was signed with Ideal to release the Magic Cube worldwide, and the puzzle made its international debut at the toy fairs of London, Paris, Nuremberg and New York in January and February 1980.

After its international debut, the progress of the Cube towards the toy shop shelves of the West was briefly halted so that it could be manufactured to Western safety and packaging specifications. A lighter Cube was produced, and Ideal decided to rename it. “The Gordian Knot” and “Inca Gold” were considered, but the company finally decided on “Rubik’s Cube”, and the first batch was exported from Hungary in May 1980.

A standard Rubik’s Cube measures 5.7 cm (approximately 2¼ inches) on each side. The puzzle consists of twenty-six unique miniature cubes, also called “cubies” or “cubelets”. Each of these includes a concealed inward extension that interlocks with the other cubes, while permitting them to move to different locations. However, the centre cube of each of the six faces is merely a single square façade; all six are affixed to the core mechanism. These provide structure for the other pieces to fit into and rotate around. So there are twenty-one pieces: a single core piece consisting of three intersecting axes holding the six centre squares in place but letting them rotate, and twenty smaller plastic pieces which fit into it to form the assembled puzzle.

Each of the six centre pieces pivots on a screw (fastener) held by the centre piece, a “3-D cross”. A spring between each screw head and its corresponding piece tensions the piece inward, so that collectively, the whole assembly remains compact, but can still be easily manipulated. The screw can be tightened or loosened to change the “feel” of the Cube. Newer official Rubik’s brand cubes have rivets instead of screws and cannot be adjusted.

The Cube can be taken apart without much difficulty, typically by rotating the top layer by 45° and then prying one of its edge cubes away from the other two layers. Consequently, it is a simple process to “solve” a Cube by taking it apart and reassembling it in a solved state.

There are six central pieces which show one coloured face, twelve edge pieces which show two coloured faces, and eight corner pieces which show three coloured faces. Each piece shows a unique colour combination, but not all combinations are present (for example, if red and orange are on opposite sides of the solved Cube, there is no edge piece with both red and orange sides). The location of these cubes relative to one another can be altered by twisting an outer third of the Cube 90°, 180° or 270°, but the location of the coloured sides relative to one another in the completed state of the puzzle cannot be altered: it is fixed by the relative positions of the centre squares. However, Cubes with alternative colour arrangements also exist; for example, with the yellow face opposite the green, the blue face opposite the white, and red and orange remaining opposite each other.

Douglas Hofstadter, in the July 1982 issue of Scientific American, pointed out that Cubes could be coloured in such a way as to emphasise the corners or edges, rather than the faces as the standard colouring does; but neither of these alternative colourings has ever become popular.


The original (3×3×3) Rubik’s Cube has eight corners and twelve edges. There are 8! (40,320) ways to arrange the corner cubes. Seven can be oriented independently, and the orientation of the eighth depends on the preceding seven, giving 37 (2,187) possibilities. There are 12!/2 (239,500,800) ways to arrange the edges, since an even permutation of the corners implies an even permutation of the edges as well. (When arrangements of centres are also permitted, as described below, the rule is that the combined arrangement of corners, edges, and centres must be an even permutation.) Eleven edges can be flipped independently, with the flip of the twelfth depending on the preceding ones, giving 211 (2,048) possibilities.

 {8! \times 3^7 \times (12!/2) \times 2^{11}} = 43,252,003,274,489,856,000

which is approximately 43 quintillion.

The puzzle was originally advertised as having “over 3,000,000,000 (three billions) combinations but only one solution”.  To put this into perspective, if one had as many standard sized Rubik’s Cubes as there are permutations, one could cover the Earth’s surface 275 times.

The preceding figure is limited to permutations that can be reached solely by turning the sides of the cube. If one considers permutations reached through disassembly of the cube, the number becomes twelve times as large:

 {8! \times 3^8 \times 12! \times 2^{12}} = 519,024,039,293,878,272,000.

which is approximately 519 quintillion possible arrangements of the pieces that make up the Cube, but only one in twelve of these are actually solvable. This is because there is no sequence of moves that will swap a single pair of pieces or rotate a single corner or edge cube. Thus there are twelve possible sets of reachable configurations, sometimes called “universes” or “orbits”, into which the Cube can be placed by dismantling and reassembling it.


In Rubik’s cubers’ parlance, a memorised sequence of moves that has a desired effect on the cube is called an algorithm. This terminology is derived from the mathematical use of algorithm, meaning a list of well-defined instructions for performing a task from a given initial state, through well-defined successive states, to a desired end-state. Each method of solving the Rubik’s Cube employs its own set of algorithms, together with descriptions of what effect the algorithm has, and when it can be used to bring the cube closer to being solved.

Many algorithms are designed to transform only a small part of the cube without interfering with other parts that have already been solved, so that they can be applied repeatedly to different parts of the cube until the whole is solved. For example, there are well-known algorithms for cycling three corners without changing the rest of the puzzle, or flipping the orientation of a pair of edges while leaving the others intact.

Some algorithms do have a certain desired effect on the cube (for example, swapping two corners) but may also have the side-effect of changing other parts of the cube (such as permuting some edges). Such algorithms are often simpler than the ones without side-effects, and are employed early on in the solution when most of the puzzle has not yet been solved and the side-effects are not important. Most are long and difficult to memorise. Towards the end of the solution, the more specific (and usually more complicated) algorithms are used instead.

Relevance and application of mathematical group theory

Rubik’s Cube lends itself to the application of mathematical group theory, which has been helpful for deducing certain algorithms – in particular, those which have a commutator structure, namely XYX−1Y−1 (where X and Y are specific moves or move-sequences and X−1 and Y−1 are their respective inverses), or a conjugate structure, namely XYX−1, often referred to by speedcubers colloquially as a “setup move”. In addition, the fact that there are well-defined subgroups within the Rubik’s Cube group, enables the puzzle to be learned and mastered by moving up through various self-contained “levels of Difficulty”. For example, one such “level” could involve solving cubes which have been scrambled using only 180-degree turns. These subgroups are the principle underlying the computer cubing methods by Thistlethwaite and Kociemba, which solve the cube by further reducing it to another subgroup.

About Deepak Devanand

Seeker of knowledge
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