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JAMES DALGETY - Metagrobologist

A short puzzle biography answering some frequently asked questions.

James Dalgety is the current owner and curator of the Puzzle Museum collection. He started puzzling in the 1950s. At school he remembers having an "Aero" dexterity puzzle by R.Journet, and a plastic interlocking six-piece star. In the 1960s, whilst browsing in an antique market, he saw a pretty carved ivory loop and handle with a tangle of wire and rings attached. The owner said she thought it was a puzzle which you could take apart. James bought it for five shillings (25p) and then spent an absorbing weekend restoring and solving what he later learnt was the Chinese Rings puzzle. Thereafter he would buy every antique Chinese puzzle he saw.


He spent 1966 in the Antarctic with an Australian expedition as a Weather Observer in charge of the Solar radiation programme; whilst there he made several puzzles but, except for a glass and stainless steel sliding piece puzzle, he gave them all away: thus he was not a real collector at this stage. In the 1967 he got married and bought a house. A house is the first thing a collector needs because you can put things in it. By 1970 his collection included one son and about 40 puzzles and he began seriously collecting every type of puzzle.

In 1971 he started Pentangle which he and his business partner, Ron Cook, built up over 10 years into Europe's foremost source of mechanical puzzles. The company produced over 300 different puzzles of all types: about one third were new puzzle designs by James and Ron, one third were traditional puzzles, and one third were new puzzles by independent designers. They were challenging puzzles, mostly made of mahogany, stainless steel and other high quality materials for the adult gift trade.    In 1978 Pentangle was the first company to introduce the Magic Cube (later known as Rubik's Cube) to the Western world.

Amongst dozens of puzzles that James designed at this time were the original “Double Treble Clef” which was a beautifully elegant way of making the old “Reef Knot Puzzle” from a single piece of wire, “The Ball & Chain” also known as the “Manacle”, and “The Devil’s Halo”. All have been endlessly copied since they won London Design Centre awards in the 1970s, and of course the Devil’s Halo was the founding puzzle of all the thousands of different Tanglement puzzles where you have to remove a loop of cord or chain from a sculptural object on a base.

After 15 years James left Pentangle to assist Richard Gregory in starting the Exploratory in Bristol. The Exploratory was the U.K.'s first Hands-On Science Centre and as Project Director James took it from an idea and an office to an exhibition which drew 100,000 visitors in its first year. In 1989 James combined the concepts of puzzles and interactive exhibitions into a new exhibition “PuzzleQuest” which was based at TechniQuest in Cardiff, Wales. The exhibition has been duplicated for, or travelled to, major venues in various countries including Canada, Denmark and the Australian National Science Centre. These are not just small puzzles on a table-top; they are large self-contained exhibition pieces: The basic puzzle ideas come from many sources including the world's leading designers. These ideas then have to be adapted into self contained, free standing objects which are attractive to the general public and can stand up to being handled, or mishandled, by over 100,000 people per year with the minimum of maintenance.

James continues to supply designs for Hands-On Science and Puzzle Exhibitions. Over the years he has also supplied antique puzzles to Museums and to fellow collectors. Since the 1970s he has been an agent for the sculptures of Miguel Berrocal, many of which are not only beautiful works of art, but are also the ultimate in three dimensional puzzles. He also designs puzzles for commercial purposes and for toy manufacturers.

Over the years he broadened his collecting to include all types of puzzles. In age they span from a coin from Knossos with a maze on it from 320 BC to prototypes of next years plastic puzzles. In size they span from 3 mm. burr puzzles made by Allan Boardman to a 17th century Portuguese treasury chest nearly 1½ metres long with 10 secret compartments. Getting this into his house was a puzzle itself - It took 3 men and various tools and trolleys move it through the one door wide enough to fit it through. By 1999 his collection had grown to around 11,000 puzzles.

In 2000 James' best friend, the great puzzle collector, Edward Hordern died. Edward's family gave James all of the puzzle collection which Edward had built up over 20 years into the finest in the world. Since that time the Hordern-Dalgety Puzzle Collection has completely taken over James' life. Still adding to, it now numbers somewhere in the region of forty to fifty thousand items. James is currently trying to find a new home for the collection in a publicly accessible venue as an international research archive, ideally with an attached museum to display some of it to the general public. He would prefer the venue to be within the United Kingdom but would happily consider any other locations so long as the future of the collection is secure.

James has different favourite puzzles from day to day; but recurring favourites include: -
Puzzle Boxes because of the sense of expectation they give the would-be solver. Stewart Coffin's ingenious polyhedral puzzles that have very few pieces yet can form several different symmetrical solutions.  Antique puzzles with a historical link such as a puzzle that commemorates Women's Suffrage at the turn of the 20th century, and puzzle prints of Napoleonic times. He also enjoys Dexterity puzzles which look pretty and never get easier however many times you have solved them, and cast metal puzzles which fit in the pocket and make good travelling companions.

The thing which has always attracted him to puzzles in general is the element of human ingenuity which has gone into their design, and the way that puzzles challenge the way people think.

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