Rubiks Cube – a 30 year on-off love afair

It was over 30 years ago that I first learned to solve the Rubiks Cube. Then 15 years ago I learned to solve it all over again. And recently, I’ve learned that learning to solve it is still good fun!

Read on to find out how this little twisty puzzle has featured in my life…

Like all children born in the early 70’s, I had a Rubiks Cube in the early 80’s. They were launched in 1980, but hit it big in 1981, which is when I got my first one. I tried really hard to understand it, follow it’s logic and come up with a way of solving it that didn’t involve a screwdriver or sticker peeling. Eventually I managed it, although the book I had just got “How to solve the Rubiks Cube” may have played an important role in that! I followed the instructions often enough to be able to solve it without referring to them, and managed to get to a pretty good time. (In my memory it seems like well under a minute, but in all likelihood it was probably a couple of minutes or so). I was one of only a couple of kids at school that could do it, and I amazed classmates, teachers and family with my cubing prowess.

Then the following year came the ZX Spectrum. Then BMX bikes. Then girls. Then cars. Then houses. So for the following 15 years, I knew I could solve the cube, but never actually did.

Whilst sorting out some old stuff in my mid 20’s I came across my old Cube, and having a few minutes spare, decided to scramble and re-solve it. It came as quite a shock that I didn’t know how to do it. Well, I knew kind of what I should be doing, but not the actual moves to make those things happen! Some muscle memory remained, and I had what felt like a couple of moves that I used to do, although I didn’t know what they did. So I embarked on teaching myself how to solve it.

Having the gist of a few moves was a good start. I found that if I did some of them over and over again I might get lucky and something would work right. Sometimes I wasn’t so lucky, and by trial and error and error and error, I managed to add a few more moves to my repertoire, until I had a foolproof (if long and unwieldy!) way to solve it. My girlfriend at the time was no geeky maths wizz, but I was able to pass on my knowledge so she could solve the cube too.

Over the following years I kept my hand in, as I didn’t want to lose this skill again. Gradually I got better, and passed on my skill to a few more people. In 2004 I even ran a Cube Solving Workshop at the British Juggling Convention. Despite my solution not being very quick, efficient or elegant, it was fairly straightforward, and only needed the memorisation of a couple of algorithms. On a good day, with a bit of luck, I was solving it in 1 minute 30 seconds, although 2 minutes or so was normally more realistic.

I knew there were better ways. By now there were hundreds of websites dedicated the the Cube, and YouTube was full of videos and solutions. But I was reluctant to move away from what I knew. My tried and tested method worked, so if it ain’t broke, why fix it!

In March this year I solved the Cube whilst riding a two-wheeled unicycle (see this post). Whilst 2:31 was quite a respectable time under the circumstances (and still probably the fasted in the world!) I needed to cut down on the time quite considerably. I had got to know Michael Erskine through Nottinghack, and picked his brain for a couple of shortcuts. This really opened my eyes as to how much room for improvement there was. So, earlier this month, I went along to a beginners workshop that Michael was running at Derby Makers, and whilst I only learned a few moves, they have made a world of difference. One scenario, which would have taken me 38 twists to complete can now be done in just 6!

Almost overnight my average time dropped to below 1:30, and it’s not unusual now to solve in under a minute (certainly not more than 1:10). So, whilst I’m still lightyears away from the 7 or 8 seconds that some people can do, I feel like I’m getting halfway respectable times again. It feels how I would imagine it feels for someone that bought a brand new car in the 1980’s, that has kept hold of it for years because its their pride and joy. It might not be as luxurious as newer cars, or have modern gadgets like CD players, or be as cheap to run, but it’s theirs and they love it. Until one day they bite the bullet and buy a new car, only to be blown away by how nice it is!

I have now got a 4x4x4 Rubiks Cube to play with too. 42 minutes for a first solve won’t set any records, but I’m now down to under 10 minutes (still looking at the algorithms for a couple of moves though), and looking forward to getting it down to about 5 minutes.

What will the next 30 years bring? Who knows, but lets find out one turn at a time…