Ask Doc Knox:

Where is Knoxville's Ever-Puzzling Rubik's Cube?

Hi Dr. Knox,

Where is Knoxville's pride the giant Rubik's Cube that has surfaced then disappeared over the years? I keep hearing it's being restored but then it never happens. Does it even exist anymore? 

Thanks,

M. Moran
Knoxville


Dear Mme. Moran:

It's a puzzle, indeed. 

We've been thinking about it ever since we opened our copy of Parade Magazine this past July 25. That venerable publication featured "15 Ways to Enjoy Your Summer"--one of which was "Visit an American Original." Citing a website called RoadsideAmerica.com, the article recommended "surprising--and hilarious...can't-miss sites" in all 50 states. Tennessee's sole entry was in Knoxville, the "World's Largest Rubik's Cube." 

Ever since then, we've been encountering disappointed tourists, who, clutching their Parades, had made a special day trip from Dollywood to see our unique cubical wonder. But most Knoxvillians haven't seen our "American Original" lately--which, as you may know, was not all that American. Most of us wouldn't be of much use offering directions to tourists. They go home sadder, and earlier, than they anticipated. 

For those unfamiliar with the twisty tale of our still-aspiring landmark, the Rubik's Cube was one of the dozen most photographed icons of the 1982 World's Fair, installed, for those particularly noisy six months, at the Hungary pavilion, which was located between what's now Fort Kid and the Knoxville Museum of Art--closer to the former, on the west side of a corridor that roughly approximated the future World's Fair Drive. It was one of the ordinary corrugated blue metal pavilions, intended to be temporary, alongside the mostly modest and prosaically earnest European pavilions of France, Great Britain, Italy, and West Germany. 

Invented in Hungary by Erno Rubik and introduced in America around 1980, the Rubik's Cube was omnipresent in the early '80s, on coffee tables, in schoolkids' knapsacks, on psychotherapists' desks. By the summer of 1982, the original mania for the Rubik's Cube had perhaps peaked, but the compellingly useless device was still popular. Though Hungary made a special place for the Cube in its pavilion, where, with dramatic lighting, it took center stage, it was actually manufactured for the pavilion here in town, by a company called HySign, which employed part of an automobile axle in its mechanism. 

Those who remember the Fair may recall there were actually two giant Rubik's Cubes installed at that pavilion: one was outside, one inside. When people refer to the giant Rubik's Cube that survived the Fair, it's probably the one that was inside. Covered with enamel or high-quality plastic panels in bright primary colors, it had motion to it, and was electrically driven, and looked at first glance like a real Rubik's Cube, but extra-large size, maybe six feet square. Contrary to some  descriptions, it was hardly a fully functional Rubik's Cube; only the outer panels rotated, and then only vertically. So it solved itself every few seconds. 

The theme of the Fair, you may recall, was Energy, and some pavilions, especially those of Western Europe, adhered to that guideline with plodding compliance, with diagrams explaining clean coal and photovoltaic collectors. Hungary was one of a few who slipped in cultural icons under the imaginative loophole of "creative energy." The pavilion also included displays about composer Bela Bartok. Some grumbling could be heard from staffers the other European nations that the Rubik's Cube may have violated some guideline laid down by the Fair management. Regardless, tourists seemed grateful for a colorful point of familiarity as they walked among exhibits about mining and drilling and conservation. The neighboring Brits said, Blimey, they should have brought along something about the Beatles and the Stones, and eventually did add a film of Prince Charles and Lady Diana's wedding. 

One afternoon, 38-year-old Erno Rubik himself, allegedly the Eastern Bloc's first self-made millionaire, made a rare public appearance at the monument to his invention, and drew a crowd of kids. (Now 66, he lives in Hungary. Google suggests that he is still the world's second most-famous Erno.) 

There was particular excitement attached to the Hungarian Pavilion because Hungary was then one of two Communist nations participating in the Fair. In 1982, aging strongman Janos Kadar was in charge of Hungary, taking orders from the Soviet Union's Leonid Brezhnev. Was putting a Rubik's Cube on display in Knoxville, where Ronald Reagan might see it, Brezhnev's idea? Hungarians wore the yoke of Communism a little lighter than some of their neighbors, though, and we're convinced the success of Rubik's Cube in the capitalist West encouraged them to come back over. It may be the most influential toy in the history of the Cold War. 

After the Fair ended, on Halloween night, 1982, perhaps the Hungarians didn't want to pay the freight to send it back to Budapest. By one account, they donated it to UT, and some say they remember it, after the Fair, displayed in the lobby of the Art and Architecture Building. It's actually been sighted in nearly a dozen places around town since then, so many that we wonder if the second Rubik's Cube might have enjoyed a post-Fair career as well. 

At some length, after one of the fair site's early redevelopments, it materialized in the landscaping at the corner of Clinch Avenue and World's Fair Drive, a few hundred feet south of its original location. It was no longer functional, even in its limited way, maybe just because it wasn't plugged in, frozen in mid-turn. But at that point it still had its original lacquer panels, a hard plastic that did resemble a giant Rubik's Cube, even if it didn't function exactly like one. However, through exposure to the elements and the stupidity of vandalism, the panels were badly damaged, and removed. After that, whether it's really the same Rubik's Cube we remember from the World's Fair is a matter of personal faith. 

The East Tennessee Historical Society rehabilitated what remained of it, re-covering it with new Plexiglas sheeting, and re-installed it downtown on Market Street in 2002, at the time of  a 20th-anniversary exhibit about the Fair at the Museum of East Tennessee History. It posed an exhibition dilemma, of course; the only way to make its old steel frame look like a Rubik's Cube was to replace the brightly colored exterior, concealing the only extant authentic parts of it. Its new look posed an interesting philosophical question of whether it was really the original World's Fair icon or not. The skeleton was the same, and from a distance it did look like a Rubik's Cube, but none of what was visible on Market Street was what visitors to the Fair saw.  

There it remained for a couple of years, puzzling casual tourists on the Market Street sidewalk. Then, around 2004, at the time of the major expansion of the History Center, it disappeared. Many of us assumed it was in warehouse storage somewhere, but some folks spotted it rusting away under an elevated highway, off Blackstock Road, between downtown and Mechanicsville.

However, we somehow missed the fact that it actually did get restored. In 2007, the 25th anniversary of the Fair, a group from UT obtained and restored the old Cube, with outer panels of Plexiglas. The material may look a little better than it did during its time on Market Street, but, in our opinion, not like it did at the World's Fair. The black tape that conceals the screws, and some painted plywood, makes it look something like a handyman's garage project. But we're glad they did it, and they fixed the motor and restored motion to the thing, for the first time in many years, and showed it off at the 4th of July festivities there that year. 

Is what you can see the real World's Fair Rubik's Cube? It's a question we can't answer, and one that goes to the very heart of the nature of Authenticity. You can ponder it today, for free. It's in another face-lifted remnant of 1982, the World's Fair Holiday Inn. It's on the restaurant floor, at the top of the escalators down to the park, motionless behind a rope and a sign that says Do Not Touch.

Yr. Obt. Svt., 

Z. Heraclitus Knox, Ki.EE

Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis. Send all your queries, big or small, to editorATmetropulseDOTcom.

Comments » 1

  • November 12, 2010
  • 4:14 PM
tom writes:

Cool!

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Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis.