Mysteries of the cube

Hungarian magic cubeLike the Yo Yo before it, the Rubik's Cube became a huge draw for children in early 1981. But, unlike the Yo Yo, it's attraction was not limited to children alone, being an object of huge focus for adults desperate to solve the puzzle in the quickest time possible. Grant Powell, Assistant Editor, wonders whatever happened to his own Rubik's cube, as he comes across a fascinating article in Computer Bulletin, September 1981.

For those not in-the-know, the Rubik’s Cube was a puzzle consisting of one large cube made-up of 27 smaller cubes. These cubes were connected together in three layers ‘by an ingenious mechanism which allows the layers to be rotated no matter how the cube is orientated’. The coloured sides could be scrambled in three or four moves, making the entire cube multi-coloured. The object of the puzzle was to be able to reset the cube to its original format, with a single block of colour on each face.

For some, solving the puzzle could prove impossible, others could complete it in twenty to thirty minutes, Computer Arts Society Member Robert Baker took less than three minutes, and master puzzlist and inventor John Conway was said to be able to do it behind his back, remembering the twists and turns needed for completion. At the time of writing the original Computer Bulletin article from which this piece is taken, John Lansdown states that the record for completion was around 40 seconds.

More than just a game, the cube had its origins in advanced mathematics. Erno Rubik, an architect at the School for Design, Budapest, devised it to assist in teaching three dimensional design, although the fact that it embodies principles of Group Theory made it of extreme interest to scientists and mathematicians.

A variety of books were published on the subject of the cube, and the August 1981 edition of Computing Today even provided an 8080 program and flowchart providing a solution.

John’s own view of the cube was that ‘the cube is a useful device for illustrating some of the problems of three-dimensional computer graphics; in particular the non-commutative nature of 3-D rotations is immediately seen: a rotation about the Y-axis followed by one about the X-axis is quite different from one around the X followed by one around the Y.’

He closes by encouraging the reader to ‘get yourself a cube and explore its mysteries.’

Information, quotes and images taken from ‘The other Mr Cube’, by John Lansdown, which featured in the ‘Not only computing - also art’ section of Computer Bulletin, September 1981.

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