The Rubik’s Cube turns 50: How a 3-by-3 grid captured hearts and market share

Erno Rubik, inventor of the Rubik’s Cube, holds one of the cubes at the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg, Germany, Jan. 29, 2020.

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It took a month of twisting and turning for the first person to solve a Rubik’s Cube. That person was Erno Rubik, now 79, the iconic puzzle toy’s creator.

Conceived as a mathematical tool to help his students understand three-dimensional movement, the magic cube, as it was initially called, was first pieced together with cubes made from wood and paper held together with rubber bands, glue and paperclips.

It was only after the Hungarian sculptor and professor of architecture scrambled his completed cube and tried to realign the colored blocks that he realized he’d created a puzzle.

“I thought, if I can’t do it, nobody else can do it, or very few can do it,” Rubik told CNBC. “That was proof that it was possible to put in the market, to demonstrate it to the public.”

A source of pride, envy and frustration, the Rubik’s Cube turns 50 this year and, under the ownership of Spin Master, it shows no signs of retirement.

“Rubik’s isn’t just a toy,” said Sam Susz, senior director of global marketing at Spin Master. “It’s art. It’s a sport. It’s science. It’s math.”

Since its inception in 1974, the Rubik’s Cube has spread throughout the pop culture landscape, appearing in movies and TV shows, music videos, comics, video games and museums. The iconic 3-by-3 grid has graced T-shirts, been turned into keychains, inspired architecture and sparked an entire subgenre of art.

Enthusiasts have raced to shrink the cube creator’s monthlong solving time, with the current world record standing at a mere 3.13 seconds.

Rami Sbahi auditioning for “America’s Got Talent” in 2014 by solving a Rubik’s Cube both with his feet and with his hands quickly.

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“I would throw Rubik’s in the category of toys and game brands that transcended and became lifestyle brands,” said James Zahn, editor in chief of “The Toy Book” and senior editor of “The Toy Insider.”

A no-brainer acquisition

Toronto-based Spin Master, known for brands such as Hatchimals, Tech Deck and Kinetic Sand, acquired the Rubik’s Cube brand in 2021, five years after snapping up the iconic Etch-a-Sketch.

“I mean, in the toy and game industry it is not often that you come across the opportunity to acquire an evergreen, iconic brand,” Susz said. “And this brand is just something that has just such incredible staying power.”

Adding tried-and-true evergreen products to its portfolio allows Spin Master to take risks with new brands, knowing it has a set of products that will always have a space on retail shelves.

“Rubik’s is just a brand that shows no signs of ever going away,” Zahn said. “It will forever be regarded as a classic.”

At present, the cube has 42% market share in the brain teaser category, according to Susz. And sales are still growing.

In 2022, global retail sales of the Rubik’s Cube grew nearly 4% year over year and reached $75.3 million, the result of nearly 6 million units sold. That figure does not include tens of millions of dollars in sales of related, Rubik’s-inspired cubes, Susz said. As of November 2023, year-to-date sales were up 14% over 2022.

Spin Master generated just over $2 billion in revenue in 2022, making Rubik’s Cube sales just under 4% of the company’s total earnings that year.

“The one important element of its longevity is the fact that new people keep discovering it each and every year,” said Zahn.

Much of the Rubik’s Cube staying power is tied to its complex nature — 43 quintillion combinations, Rubik touts — and the human drive to solve problems.

14-year-old Terence Wilson of Deepdale near Preston, with his Rubik’s Cube and Rubik’s Snake, 28th August 1981.

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Parents and educators have gravitated toward the cube as a way to occupy kids outside the digital world and aid in development of dexterity and critical thinking skills.

Spin Master is also in the process of starting the Rubik’s Academy, an educational program that provides teachers with lesson plans that integrate the puzzle toy into the classroom.

“It’s absolutely great for kids with learning difficulties,” said Amanda Gummer, a child development expert and founder of the toy review site “The Good Play Guide.” “It helps them with confidence, and when they’ve mastered it, it’s quite a kind of cool playground boast.”

The next 50 years

While the traditional Rubik’s Cube remains popular, Spin Master has been quick to develop new versions of the cube.

This includes the Rubik’s Phantom, the familiar 3-by-3 cube printed with thermochromic ink that appears all black until the heat from your hands activates the colors, and the Rubik’s Impossible, a cube with iridescent tiles that change color when viewed from different angles.

“There is probably no harder challenge than to try and innovate something that’s been around for 50 years, and everyone’s done everything under the sun with it,” Susz said.

Spin Master also wants to make solving the cube more accessible. Alongside online tutorials and a Rubik’s Cube mobile app, the company has developed the Rubik’s Coach Cube, covered in numbered stickers that correspond to each step needed to solve the cube.

The goal, after 50 years, is to keep momentum.

Spin Master is working closely with brands such as Mattel’s Barbie, Hello Kitty, Levi and Mercedes to launch new products, from toys to apparel and even a Formula 1 racing car. There’s even a hope that the company will develop a feature film about Rubik’s life, similar to films such as “Air,” “Blackberry” or “Barbie,” Susz said.

Spin Master expects sales growth to continue in 2024 as it unveils new iterations of the cube.

“One of the beauties of Spin Master having full control and ownership of Rubik’s globally is that now we can invest in a big way,” Susz said.