An Instant History of Puzzles

By James Dalgety. Originally written for Gathering for Gardner #1 in Atlanta in January 1993

The earliest documented puzzles were riddles. These were taken very seriously by some people as you can see from reading the Bible. Greek mythology produced the Riddle of the Sphinx, and Homer reputedly died of frustration at being unable to answer "What we caught we threw away, what we could not catch we kept". The Dark Ages produced many riddles and by 900 AD they were spiced with sexual innuendoes to throw one off course and elaborated with references to the words and letters of which the riddle was constructed. You can see this in Exeter Riddle Book commissioned by Leofric the first Bishop of Exeter who died in 1072.

In an era when most people could not read, pictures were used to convey abstract ideas and much imagery in art appears to be puzzling to us today. In England today there are pub signs, originally used as an aid to the illiterate, but now one wonders what on earth made anyone choose the name: some were taken from the Coat of Arms of the local aristocrat, and these in turn may have been a visual pun, or rebus, on his name. Many word puzzles were produced combining the visual and riddling context into Anagrams and Acrostics. There is a book published in 1626 which contains Anagrams, Chronograms (where the capitalised letters are added together to produce the date of publication), and even a Triple Acrostic. Rebuses, in which pictures replace some or all of the words, were very popular in the 18th century; some are more puzzling today than when they were produced - from looking at a tiny picture, would you recognise a porter's knot? The porters knot could be used to represent "not". Some were really corny: a "snake" might be used to represent "Hiss" or "His" as in "His Royal Highness"!

Durer Melencolia 1 Magic word squares and Magic number squares were considered to have mystical properties and were used as talismans long before they were used as puzzles. An example is the famous "ROTAS OPERA TENET AREPO SATOR" word square found in the Roman ruins in Chichester. One of the most famous magic number squares is in Albrect Durer's print Melancholia: in Renaissance times this square was considered by astrologers to be a charm against melancholy.

The origins of Mechanical Puzzles poses more of a problem. Archimedes is reputed to have played with a dissected square puzzle, and there are other isolated early examples of mechanical puzzles. Drop a china plate and have you just invented an assembly puzzle? Tangle a ball of wool - is it a puzzle? Early examples of burr puzzles are known; and before the technical sophistication of the 1800s, many locks relied on puzzling mechanisms in addition to, or instead of, a key. The so called "Chinese Rings Puzzle" was used in many parts of the world as a lock. More of a delayer than a real deterrent to a thief, but adequate in some circumstances. It certainly qualifies as an early tanglement puzzle. The mathematician Cardan wrote about it in 1550. "Cup & Ball" one of the earliest dexterity puzzles has, together with its variants using a stick and bone rings, probably been popular since Neolithic times. Before Banks one concealed ones valuables in secret compartments - the precursors of puzzle boxes.

Mechanical puzzles manufactured solely as Puzzles did not really manifest themselves until the start of the industrial revolution and the advent of a relatively wealthy middle class and a wider number of people seeking and able to afford an education for their children. Initially puzzles were produced as paper or wood versions of problems which appeared in books of Recreational Mathematics and "Natural Philosophy" as Science used to be called.

Around 1810 Tangrams and other ivory puzzles began to arrive in the U.S.A. and Europe from China; however there is no evidence at present, other than hearsay, that any puzzles were made in China for the Chinese prior to this date. Of the ivory puzzles that came from China apart from the Tangram, most had been documented as existing in Europe beforehand and so it is not unreasonable that they were originally made exclusively to the order of Westerners for the export trade. Puzzles Old and New The most significant feature of these puzzles is that, apart from Jigsaws, they were the only puzzles that most people ever saw, thus "Chinese Puzzle" became the generic term for any mechanical puzzle other than Jigsaws or Dissected Maps. To Europeans the Chinese were an enigmatic race full of mystery and secrets so it would be natural to credit them with the invention of such devious objects.

A Wm. Jones catalogue of 1787 lists few puzzles. In the 1840s a Mr Crambrook was producing a catalogue with over 100 puzzles and holding what is believed to be the first ever puzzle exhibition. In 1893 Hoffman published his "Puzzles Old and New" listing several hundred puzzles in current production, but even he was only scratching the surface as can be seen by looking at any big private collection.

Puzzle crazes probably started with a Tangram craze in the early to mid 1800s. Sam Loyd started a 15s puzzle craze in the 1870s by offering a huge prize of $1000 to solve his problem of the exchanged 14-15 (There was no solution!). He never actually claimed to have invented the 15s puzzle, but he certainly started a craze the like of which was not seen again till the Rubik cube craze of the 1980s which is still fresh in our minds.

Think of an object or subject and there is probably a puzzle in the museum that is related to it.