The Rubik’s Cube is a twisty toy that has 43 quintillion possible configurations — and it can also teach us something about trends and fads. Joy and this week’s co-host Buddy are visited by Rocky, of long lost Pet Rock fame, who wonders why it isn’t still popular. Listen as they all explore the ups and downs of the Rubik’s Cube and spot the differneces. Find out who invented the Rubik’s Cube, how it’s popularity died out and why it’s back in a big way now. 

We’ll also learn about other trends like the flagpole sitting and goldfish eating (really!), and how fads and fashions come and go. Plus, there’s a new First Things First with Legos, slime and crossword puzzles. Which do you think came first (no peeking)?


We’re always looking to hear your suggestions of what to put in the Forever Ago Time Capsule. Upload your recorded answer at ForeverAgo.org/contact.

Audio Transcript

Download transcript (PDF)

This is Forever Ago, where we explore the before.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

It was a dark and stormy night when we heard it.

[DOOR KNOCKING]

It was late. We weren't expecting visitors.

I had just put on my pink bun bun slippers. So you know business hours were over.

But they clearly needed our help, or they wanted to be here, so we invited them in.

[DOOR OPENING]

When I saw who it was, I gasped like this.

[GASPS]

It was like seeing a ghost. Someone you thought was long gone standing in front of you. Chills. Chills, I tell you.

I took a long, hard swig of the strongest stuff I had, which was just water because even though business hours were over, hydrating hours never end.

A visitor was none other than the Pet Rock.

[GRIPPING MUSIC]

The Pet Rock. It's an ordinary rock that came in a cardboard box that looked like an animal crate. And it was the trendiest gag gift of 1975. For about six months, people were off their rockers for this plain old rock in a box.

It was in the news. It was at major stores. Over a million sold in no time flat, a true rock star, see?

Yup. Old rock had a brief moment of fame and fortune before falling on hard times.

Yeah, within a year or so, the craze for owning a Pet Rock was over. And these rocks were left in the scrap bin of history. So you can imagine our surprise seeing this relic in the flesh-- stone.

It looked at its eye to whatever a rock looks with and asked, Joy, buddy, I need your help. Can you make me cool again?

Obviously, we took the case. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

This is Forever Ago from APM Studios. I'm Joy Dolo.

And I'm Buddy.

Yeah. And today, we're helping the Pet Rock on its quest to be cool again. We're going to do that by exploring the history of fads.

Of fad, a.k.a. trend or a craze. It's something that became super popular super quick and then fizzled out.

So do you have an idea of a toy or some clothing that was like a fad?

I think a lot of people used to like a lot of really baggy, baggy clothes.

Yes.

And that's what my dad told me. He told me that people used to wear a lot of baggy, baggy clothes. And now people wear a lot of the skinnier stuff like skinny jeans and stuff.

Yes, I have to relate with your father because I think they're called JNCO jeans.

Yeah.

But they were super baggy, and you couldn't even see the forms of your legs. They were so big. But it was like the hip thing to do.

Yeah.

Yeah, I absolutely agree with that. So a fad is something that was cool a long time ago, like we're talking about the jeans, or like Pokemon.

Yeah.

Or do you remember? What are those little-- oh, what are those things with the little toy, the Japanese little toy, is like a little pet? Tamagotchi.

Oh.

Do you know what a Tamagotchi is?

No.

It was like a little electronic pet that you would have, and you'd have to feed it and take care of it. And if you didn't take care of it, it passed away.

Oh--

You like the digital world. Yeah. But it was so cool when I was your age, and everybody had it. But as you get older, you stop caring about it, and then they stop selling so much. And it becomes a fad.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Some fads managed to stick around, like the Rubik's cube. You've probably seen one. It's a cube about the size of a baseball. It's colorful, has six sides, and is made up of 26 smaller cubes.

Each side of the cube has its own color, and you can twist and turn and move those smaller cubes around to scramble those colors up.

Yep, then you try to unscramble it by moving the little cubes back to their original position, which sounds easy. But really, it isn't. It's a simple thing that's also very complex like me.

The Rubik's cube is exactly the fad we need to understand to crack the case of the Pet Rock.

Oh, good. I thought you forgot about me.

Oh, Rocky. We would never.

Everyone else did. Once I was the hottest item of the year. Now, I'm less famous than the Chia Pet.

The what?

Exactly.

Yep, you've really hit rock bottom.

[LAUGHTER]

I got to laugh.

A rock pun joy. In my time of need, really?

Sorry. They're just so easy. But I know you've got a lot to boulder-- shoulder. Oh, sorry. Ugh.

Look, Rock. If you want to be cool again, you need to be more like the Rubik's cube. It was a huge fad around 40 years ago. But pretty quickly, the craze died out, and it was almost forgotten forever.

But somehow, it managed to bounce back. Now it's all over YouTube. There are international competitions. Celebrities are solving them.

You learn to be like the cube, and you'll go from fad to fabulous.

I need to be like the cube. Tell me its secrets. I must know everything.

Settle down Stony Pony. We're going to tell you. First, let us set the scene.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

It all started in the spring of 1974 in the country of Hungary in Central Europe.

A 29-year-old architect named Erno Rubik was trying to find a way to model three-dimensional movement to his students. He was tinkering in his room trying to build something with some wooden cubes when suddenly it occurred to him.

What if I put these cubes here and held them like this? Oh, no. No. Oh, wait. What about if I--

An idea was forming. It took a while. But finally, he had something.

I did it, a cube that's solid. But you can move the parts. It is beautiful. But what is it?

It was a cube made of 3 by 3 smaller cubes on each side, with one cube in the middle. He could twist and move the smaller cubes around, but it wasn't until he colored each side that his invention revealed its true nature.

Oh, pretty colors. What happens when I twist this side and turn this one this way and oh, move this one like this?

He kept turning until the little cubes were all mixed up like a block of broken rainbows.

That's when Rubik realized he had no idea how to put it back the way it was.

Oh, no. What did I do? I moved this one, right? And then this. Oh, oh, or did I twist that? Oh, Jeez. There must be a way to fix this.

He worked on it for weeks, puzzling over it, thinking about it. And when he finally figured out how to solve it, he was hooked, and he bet others would be, too.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Within a few years, that block made in a bedroom became a big time best selling toy. First, they caught on and hunky.

300,000 sold in just two years. Then an American toy company brought it to the world. They showed it off at a major Toy Fair in 1980. Just like before, it was a hit.

The early '80s weren't that long ago. It was back when I was a baby. So some of life back then would feel very familiar to you. But there are a lot of things that would feel weird.

No one had smartphones. No one had the internet. If you took a picture, the only way to share it was to print it out and give someone a copy. And if they liked it, they'd say, hey, I like this because there was no social media to post it to. So there were no likes, no faves, hearts, or emojis.

So it was a lot harder to go viral back then. But the Rubik's cube had a secret power. It was very eye catching.

Right. Conversations like this were happening all over the place.

Hey, what's that bodacious, cutlery, cubey thing you're fidgeting with. It looks totally righteous.

Sure. It's only the coolest new toy since the Atari. It's called a Rubik's cube, and it's totally tubular.

Whoa. Radical. I got a squirmy one of those Cowabunga right after I finished teasing my very big perm and calling people on my cordless phone, which is new because up until now, all phones had cords and were attached to the wall, gnarly.

Oh, yeah. I know. I hate cords. Gag me with a spoon already.

Or at least that's how I assume they talked. Anyway, word spread. And by 1983, the toy company sold 100 million cubes.

This is when the Rubik's cube hit a full-fledged fat status.

There have been countless fads throughout history.

Like me, right?

Yeah, like you, Rock. In fact, you are part of a long and story history of fads. Here, step into our little exhibit.

Welcome to the foyer of forgotten fads.

What's a foyer?

Not important.

Ah, let's begin here in the 1920s.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Well, a flagpole with someone on top.

Good day, talking stone.

Yeah, back then it was cool to climb up flagpoles and sit there for hours.

Jolly good fun up here. Want to join me?

Pass.

Here I go. Oh, I did it.

What? Did that person just eat a live goldfish?

Yes, they did. In the 1930s, the goldfish swallowing challenge was all the rage for some reason.

In the 1960s, people were super into these glass jars filled with floating goo called lava lamps.

Oh, pretty.

In the '70s, people were obsessed with neon-colored posters that glow under a special kind of black light bulb.

Cool. That Pegasus poster is practically glowing.

The '90s had toys like the rubbery Kush ball, this GUI stuff called Gak and cute little stuffed animals called Beanie Babies.

In the 2000s, it was cool to do flash mobs, dance at silent discos, and wear those silly bands bracelets.

And these are just some of the fads over the last 100 years. Who knows what the next 100 years will bring? Flying pants parades, electric gum, selfies on the moon?

The possibilities are endless.

And this concludes our tour of the foyer of forgotten fads.

[DOOR CLOSES]

Wow. So humans and fads go together like rocks and more rocks.

Is that a thing? Anyway, yeah, people love fads. And in the early 1980s, it was the Rubik's cube turn.

Exactly. This thing was everywhere. People were trying to solve it. Books with tips on how to do so rocketed up the bestseller list. It won awards around the world, and it was on the cover of magazines.

It was spoofed on the TV show Saturday Night Live, and it was on display at the famous Museum of Modern Art in New York.

People were playing with it so much. One doctor even coined a term for a hand injury he started seeing-- Rubik's thumb. And get this. It had its own cartoon show, where the cube had legs and face and magic powers and a very disturbing voice.

Hello, my name is Rubik.

Stay out of my dreams, talking cube.

In 1982, they held the first international cubing competition, where someone solved the puzzle in just under 23 seconds.

Dang, that's fast.

Yeah, and people got way faster, or they would have if the competition happened again the next year. But it didn't.

Soon, sales dipped. Counterfeit cubes flooded the market, and people lost interest. By 1986, the New York Times called the cube a bright meteor that burned out.

Ouch.

In just a few short years, Rubik's mania was over. It went from selling out at toy stores to having trouble selling at garage sales.

In short, Rocky, the cube was like you, a fad that came and went.

OK. Now, you're just bumming me out.

Sorry, but that's just what fads do. I mean, all those other fads you mentioned, they burned out, too.

Yeah, sometimes people just get bored of something, or the newness of it wears off.

And when something becomes mega-popular super fast, it's easy to get sick of it because it's suddenly everywhere. That's called being overexposed.

And by the mid-80s, the Rubik's cube was definitely overexposed. It doesn't help that it was also notoriously tough to solve. After all, there are more than 43 quintillion possible ways to scramble the thing and only one correct solution. And this was before the internet, so you couldn't just search for tips.

But happily, our story doesn't end here. The cube may have been between a rock and a hard place.

Hey.

Sorry. But it had a few more tricks up its sleeve.

What happened? I got to know.

We'll tell you on just a minute.

Yeah, the rest of the story is just a stone's throw away.

[LAUGHTER]

Nobody liked it. OK. I'll stop. What is wrong with me? Jeez. But now, we're going to play First Things First.

First Things First.

OK, Buddy, we're going to hear about three things, and we've got to guess which order they were invented. Are you ready?

Yes.

Are you sure about that?

Yes.

[LAUGHTER]

This is going to be fun. I promise.

All right.

OK. Today's items are LEGOs, Slime, and crossword puzzles. You know those word puzzles where you get clues and have to fill the answers in a grid? You know?

Yes.

Cool. Cool. So what do you think came first in history?

Definitely, the puzzles.

Puzzles? Oh, crossword puzzles? And then, puzzles, LEGOs, and Slime. What do you think is second?

I want to say LEGOs.

LEGOs?

Yeah.

So we're thinking puzzles, LEGOs, and then Slime?

Mm-hmm.

That's a good guess. Why do you think it's that order?

Because crossword puzzles just seemed like it's been out for a while.

Yeah.

So that's why I just guessed that. And then LEGOs, they seem pretty popular. So I'm guessing that it came out sometime in the '90s or late '80s or something.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

And then Slime, it just seems like some new thing that they came out with.

Yeah. What are you supposed Slime is made of?

I do not know.

[LAUGHTER]

Probably applesauce or something like that. I agree. I think the crossword puzzles would be first because it just seems like puzzles. People have been doing puzzles forever.

Yeah.

And I'm with you. I'm not sure if Slime or LEGOs is next because LEGOs are made from plastic, I think.

Yeah, plastic.

And plastic has been around for a long time. So you think that would be second.

Yeah.

I think I'm going to agree with you.

Yeah.

The crossword puzzles, LEGOs, Slime. No pressure. But if we get this wrong, I heard that they're not going to let us leave the studio today.

Oh.

Did you bring a knapsack?

Nope.

Oh, no.

[LAUGHTER]

OK. We'll open up the envelope with the answers right after this.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Our obsession over history is one thing that's never going out of style. That's why we're making a time capsule.

A time capsule is a collection of things that show people in the future where our lives are like today. When those future people open up our time capsule and check out the stuff in it, they'll learn about what things were like today.

So we want to know what you put in that time capsule? What is something you think future people should know about?

Record yourself telling us about the item you have in mind and why you want to save it.

And send it to us at foreverago.org/contact.

Maybe it's something that is trendy right now, or maybe it's something that will always be cool, like podcasts about history. Buddy, what are you adding this week?

I will bring phones, Oculus, the VRs, and stuff.

OK. I think that's a really smart idea. That Oculus--

Yeah.

--that still blows me away. We'll hear what more listeners would put in the time capsule at the very end of the show after the credits. Send us your recording at foreverago.org/contact. We can't wait to hear what you come up with.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

You're listening to Forever Ago from APM Studios. I'm Joy Dolo.

And I'm Buddy.

And we're going to find out what came first. Drum roll please?

[MAKING DRUM ROLL SOUNDS]

[LAUGHS]

OK. Oh, my gosh. I know all the answers, Buddy. I'm not going to tell you what they are. I'm just kidding.

[LAUGHTER]

So the very first one was crosswords. So we were right.

Oh.

Yeah, the first known published crossword puzzle was a diamond shape. It appeared in the Sunday paper of the New York World in 1913. Isn't that nuts?

Yeah.

[LAUGHTER]

So guess what the second one was? Guess.

Slime.

It was LEGO.

Oh, we got it right. We got it right.

We got it right. We got it right. The LEGO bricks we know and love were created in 1958, like what you were saying. LEGO began as a wooden toy company in 1932 in Denmark created by Ola Kirk Christiansen. Oh, yeah, he decided to name his company "Leg Godt," meaning play well.

So since 1958, the system of LEGOs hasn't changed. Meaning a LEGO brick from 1958 can interlock from a LEGO brick of today. So we can get a brick that was made today and use something from 1958, and they would still fit together.

Oh, wow. That's crazy.

Yeah, that'd be something cool to put in the time capsule, right? Something from then--

Yeah.

--and then now and in the future.

Mm-hmm.

It's three different kinds of LEGOs. So we were right. The last one was Slime. Slime, and it is made from applesauce. Just kidding?

Wait. Well-- oh.

[LAUGHS]

Got you. Ready-made slime was introduced by the Mattel Toy Company in 1976. They came in small plastic trash cans. And slime became popular again more recently in 2015, so shortly after you were born. Oh, my gosh, really after you were born. I'm so old.

Slime can be made from household items combining glue, baking soda, and food coloring. Just don't make a mess.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

OK. Let's get back to the story of the Rubik's cube. Last we left it, the cube was like any other fad past its prime, forgotten, discarded, over and done, washed up, played out.

Hello, former fads sitting right here. This isn't helping my self-esteem. But you'll help me be cool again, right? You said you would.

We'll do our best, but it took decades for the Rubik's cube to come back. And it wouldn't have happened if it weren't for an invention that totally changed the world.

Hot Cheetos.

The internet.

Oh, yeah, the internet. Yeah, that's what I said, the internet.

Even after its moments past, the Rubik's cube still had fans.

They couldn't stop finding new and faster ways to unscramble the sides, but they had no one to share their passion with. So when the internet became popular around the turn of the century, some of these fans started posting their moves or algorithms online.

For cubers, algorithms are a special set of twists and turns you can use to get one little brick back to its correct spot without messing up the rest of the bricks. And if you memorize enough algorithms, you can solve any cube.

Hi, this is Cube Girl 99. Just thought I'd share this new trick I figured out on my Rubik's cube. Not that anyone cares. Whoa, a ton of people care.

Pretty soon, there was a cubing community growing online.

Plus, kids who are too young to remember the craze the first time around started discovering the cube, too.

Hey, mom. What's this weird color block thing in your closet?

Oh, that? It's a puzzle that was cool when I was your age in the '80s.

Oh, can I have it?

Sure.

You know, I have lots of music and clothes from when I was a teenager. You might be into those, too.

Ah, yeah. I'll just take the puzzle.

But my Flock of Seagulls Records, my dance scrunchies, my acid washed jeans. I was so cool. You have to believe me.

The world changed, too. In the '80s, people thought it was a little nerdy to obsess over a puzzle that requires algorithms to solve.

But in the early 2000s, once, quote unquote, "nerdy things" were now mainstream, like computers and comic book movies, it was cool to be smart. And the Rubik's cube was a low key way to show off your brainpower. And thus began the cube's colossal comeback.

Actually, can I get some comeback music?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Perfect. By 2003, sales were climbing again. Newspapers were reporting on the cube's revival. And competitions were back and bigger than ever. Over the next several years, cube culture grew and grew.

Plus, newer, faster cubes came on the market. So people kept breaking records.

In 2005, the fastest solve was around 15 seconds. 10 years later in 2015, it was under 8 seconds. And get this. The current record is-- wait for it-- that fast, 3.47 seconds.

Dang. I can't even stand up that fast.

To be fair, you are a rock. So you can't even anything that fast.

Very true. I do not move. The other big thing that happened was that the cube became a content star.

Content star?

Yeah, in YouTube videos or TikToks or Instagram stories, short videos where people do cool or funny stuff.

Oh, Jeez. I don't know much about all that.

What? Are you living in the Stone Age?

I deserve that one.

Well, luckily, we brought in an expert to help you out.

My name is Livia Kleiner. And I'm 19 years old. I would call myself like what it says in my Instagram bio a YouTuber/Cuber or speed cuber.

Livia started competitive cubing in 2013. Her YouTube channel has over 38,000 subscribers.

She makes videos where she solves his giant cubes or ones where she competes against celebrities. She does the cube reviews and even on boxing videos.

And she's got some advice for you, Rock. Take it away, Livia.

You got to be more than a one trick rock. You have to be more versatile. What else can we do with you? With cubes, there's always more to learn. There's always different puzzles we can solve.

You can compete. You can race with people. You can challenge yourself in so many different ways.

Good point. Fads die out when people get bored. The Rubik's cube found a way around this because it turns out, there are lots of ways to challenge yourself with it. Livia, what are some of the best examples?

Well, the first thing that comes to mind is a former event at competitions which was foot solving, where you would solve it with your feet. Ah, seeing people solve a Rubik's cube with their feet in under 30 seconds is-- it's pretty amazing. You just have to see it to believe it.

There's also giant cubes with tiny little cubes on each side or puzzles shaped like snakes or pyramids. Some people even solve them blindfolded.

Yeah, blindfold, I have done that only a few times in my life not very fast. But seeing people memorize it and solve it in under 20 seconds is pretty crazy. People have solved cubes while juggling them. People have solved cubes while doing extreme sports like skydiving or skiing. Or I've done it while skateboarding because I like skateboarding.

So you see, Pet Rock, if you want to come back, you've got to come up with more ways people can interact with you, like the Rubik's cube did. So what can you do besides sit, stay, and play dead?

Oh, wow. OK. Oh, maybe impersonations, oh, like, Dwayne The Rock Johnson. Do you smell what The Rock is cooking?

Oh, or how about a Pet Rock petting zoo? Oh, I could do a cooking show. Stone Soup, anyone? It's delicious.

Now you're getting it.

Good luck, Rock. I believe in you.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

So what have we learned today?

Fads are a part of life. They come on strong and usually leave just as fast.

Right. So keep that in mind next time everyone at your school is doing some trendy challenge or buying some flashy new doohickey. If it's not your thing, just wait it out. It'll probably be over in a year.

And for something to go from fad to forever cool, there needs to be a lot you can do with it, like the Rubik's cube.

You know, I wonder how the Pet Rock's reinvention is going. Let me just give it a quick call.

Hey, Joy. What's up?

Hey, Rock. How's the comeback coming?

You know, I decided not to do it.

What? After all that?

Yeah. It seemed like a lot of work, and I thought. What's wrong with being a fad? I should accept myself as I am.

Besides, I'm enjoying my retirement. I've been hanging out with other fads like troll dolls and fidget spinners. And we have a pretty wild book club going. So yeah, I'm good.

Wow. Well, I'm happy for you, Rock.

I'm even thinking of starting a family. Imagine me with a pebble of my own. It'd be a real chip off the old block.

Rocky, a rock pan. Oh.

Just for you, Joy. Just for you. Talk to you later.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

This episode was produced by Sanden Totten, Molly Bloom, [INAUDIBLE], with additional production support from Anna Goldfield, Monika Wilhelm, Grace Toder, and Tara Anderson, sound designed by Eduardo Perez, theme music by Mark Sanchez, voice acting by Brant Miller, Nate Habsburg, and Alex Simpson. We had engineering help from Derek Ramirez and Rachel Breeze. Beth Perlman is our executive producer. The executives in charge of APM Studios are Chandra Kavati, Joanne Griffith, and Alex Ashford. Special thanks to Livia Kleiner.

And now, it's time to add things to our time capsule.

Here's what we're putting in this week.

Hi, my name is Samara. I'm from San Francisco, California, USA. What I would put in the time capsule is some Star Wars figures, some pictures of my family and friends and house, and maybe some actual leaves from the oak trees or poppies where I live, maybe some pine because in 100 years, they might be gone because of climate change. And I don't want people to forget them.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Big thanks to Samara for those really thoughtful time capsule ideas.

Send us your time capsule idea foreverago.org/contact. We'll feature new answers in every episode.

And of course, as always, we'll go way back.

Thanks for listening.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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