Rubik’s Cube Inventor Spills a Secret in Tel Aviv

Erno Rubik reveals what makes his puzzle the best-selling toy of all time: 'It’s like the Mona Lisa smile.’

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The room is filled with gamers — 20-something geeks turned cool kids — in flip-flops and black superhero T-shirts. They’re talking digital shop at last week’s annual Digital-Life-Design Tel Aviv Innovation Festival, Israel’s largest international high-tech event.

Slightly slumped in the front row, not understanding the Hebrew, possibly ticked off by the delays and definitely looking a little sleepy, is the gray-haired, button-downed guest of honor. It’s the 70-year-old Hungarian inventor, architect and professor Erno Rubik, father of the cube that crazed the world long before anyone ever used the phrase “disruptive innovation” or fathomed cities of people walking down the street playing Angry Birds or Plants vs. Zombies on a phone.

“Throughout history people have enjoyed playing both silly and clever games,” says Rubik, who hand-built a prototype of the Rubik’s Cube in 1974— with rubber bands and blocks of wood — for his architecture students at the Budapest College of Applied Arts. Since then, over 350 million Rubik’s Cubes have been sold worldwide, making it the best-selling toy of all time.

“I think,” muses Rubik, “that there is a trick in making toys that have a balance of both.”

So that’s why Rubik was invited here, this world of game apps and Israeli geeks.

“I don’t want to say too many words about the magic of the cube, because it’s basically a mystery,” he says. “It’s like the Mona Lisa smile. It’s both complex and very simple at the same time. And, well, people like it. Even today.”

“The Rubik’s Cube has staying power,” adds Shaul Olmert, a digital-media entrepreneur who cofounded and runs PlayBuzz, one of the world’s most popular open networks for games and quizzes, with its estimated 70 million to 80 million users a month.

“Even with all the game apps and digital stuff out there, you still have kids who want Monopoly or a deck of cards for their birthdays. Maybe less and less, true — but there is something about those games. They are the classics.”

“I will tell you why the Rubik’s Cube passes the test of time,” pipes in Lewis Bernstein, a top executive at Sesame Street for over 40 years — so he knows a thing or two about staying power. “It is about joy and learning — those are the things that always last.”

Tomer Appelbaum