Hong Kong innovators

How Rubik’s Cube craze spawned rival’s Hong Kong puzzle career, and why, at 78, he’s out to finally crack the China toy market

Uwe Meffert made his first twisting puzzles for a research project. They stayed in a drawer until the Rubik’s Cube became a hit and he took them to Hong Kong toymakers; 35 years and 230 million cubes later, he’s turned to China

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 December, 2017, 7:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 December, 2017, 6:34pm

What’s red, blue, green, white, yellow and orange, and has frustrated and entertained minds in equal measure for more than four decades?

It’s the Rubik’s Cube. Invented in 1974 by Hungarian architecture professor Erno Rubik as a teaching tool, it wasn’t until six years later that it took the world by storm when it was sold as a toy.

Millions of the cubes were sold as the toy generated a worldwide interest in puzzles and games. As the cube’s success was growing, another European made his way to Hong Kong with a puzzle of his own. He’s been inventing, and selling, twisting puzzles ever since.

Like Rubik, when Uwe Meffert created his first puzzle in 1970, it was intended to be a research tool rather than a toy. Meffert, who hails from the picturesque central German town of Wernigerode, knew nothing of puzzles to start with and had no interest in them. He was looking at their effects on human health and brain stimulation.

The whole thing about puzzles is they should help you to become smarter ... We never give a complete solution
Uwe Meffert

“At that time, there was a big hype about pyramid power. Everything about pyramids was magic, and I thought it was a lot of nonsense. As a scientist, I wanted to prove that. I was doing some research on the energy flows of different shapes when we play with them, and how they affect our circulation, mental stimulation, etc,” says Meffert.

“I made five basic polygon objects, a tetrahedron, icosahedron, dodecahedron, etc, out of balsa wood, by cutting pieces and connecting them with some rubber bands and hooks. They didn’t have any colours because they were not toys. They were just things that I could use for several days and see if the different shapes had an effect on the human body.”

Although his tools proved to be helpful for mental stimulation, and changed his perception of the inherent powers of the pyramid, they were soon relegated to a drawer – until the dawn of the Rubik’s Cube phenomenon a few years later.

Meffert’s friends were sure his inventions could be just as successful as Rubik’s, and kept trying to convince him of this. They suggested he travel to Hong Kong, which was then the world’s largest producer of toys. However, he was more interested in continuing his research. When his friends wouldn’t give up, he agreed to visit Hong Kong with a mind to proving them wrong.

When Meffert arrived in the city in early 1981, he managed to arrange a meeting with Dennis Ting Hok-shou of the Hong Kong Toys Association. To his surprise, not only did Ting think his pyramid puzzle would be a successful, he also helped Meffert produce an acrylic prototype and set up meetings with top Japanese toy companies.

It was Tomy Toys that signed up to market the brainteaser, which had been named the Pyraminx. It sold as many as 10 million within its first five months of production, according to Meffert.

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“In the first three years, we shipped over 90 million Pyraminx. People were lining up outside the stores to buy the puzzle. It was a crazy time,” the 78-year-old inventor recalls. The Pyraminx was also featured in a 1982 Scientific American article that explored its mechanics in depth.

Soon after its initial success, Meffert decided to establish his own company in Hong Kong, Meffert’s Puzzles & Games, and went on to design different variations and editions of the Pyraminx, as well as new twisting puzzles including the Tetraminx, Megaminx and Skewb Cube.

Today, Meffert works with a team of 12 puzzle designers from around the world and his company boasts a back catalogue of more than 350 puzzle designs and modifications. His Wong Chuk Hang office is stocked wall-to-wall with many of the colourful products the company has designed over the years.

Although they appear to vary greatly in shape and design, Meffert says they are all essentially based on the same core four-axle mechanism that he developed in the Pyraminx.

In terms of solving the puzzles, Meffert points out that the Pyraminx has just under 100 million combinations, which is a relatively low number compared to the quadrillions of combinations possible with the Rubik’s Cube.

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According to the World Cube Association, the world record time for solving the Pyraminx is an incredible 1.28 seconds – a record set in June this year in a competition in Canada. Tournaments like that, along with a wealth of videos on YouTube and other social media platforms, have led to a revival of interest in twisting puzzles in recent years. And although Meffert agrees that such exposure has certainly contributed to the toys’ increased popularity, he is not a fan of “speedcubing” (solving puzzles in the shortest amount of time).

“It’s just a show … [speedcubing] has zero mental benefits. You just need hours and hours of practice. To solve a puzzle which has quadrillions of combinations in under five seconds, it’s not done by your brain. It is a muscle reflex as you’re just training a muscle that looks at a combination and then do it,” he says.

Rather, Meffert strongly believes, twisting puzzles offer much more benefits than just entertainment.

“When we teach people about the puzzles, we give hints on how to play rather than just the solutions. The whole thing about puzzles is they should help you to become smarter. They should stimulate your neurons to have more connections, and at the same time, manipulate the nerve ends in your hands to increase your circulation. We never give a complete solution where you just memorise algorithms. We want the person to learn from the experience,” he explains.

Meffert is currently working with a chain of kindergartens in Shenzhen, over the Chinese border from Hong Kong that hope to introduce his puzzles to children as maths teaching aids.

Although his company has sold millions of puzzles globally over the years, it only recently entered the Chinese market to tap into its huge potential customers base, but also to combat the copycat products, which is a constant battle, Meffert says. He predicts that China will be his company’s largest market within four years.

After more than three decades in the business and with over 230 million of the brainteasers sold, Meffert shows no signs of slowing down. The septuagenarian is still conjuring up new designs and remains enthusiastic about sharing his puzzles and their benefits with others, because, as he puts it: “I enjoy seeing people enjoy them.”