Did you know January 29 is National Puzzle Day?
Exactly, so you should celebrate with your mind tickler of choice!
It’s important to keep those neurons firing, especially to help facilitate the creation of all your wonderful new ideas. But, before we skip to that bright future, let’s take a quick trip through the past.
The modern history of puzzles dates back to the 18th century with mapmaking and printmaking. Actually, just one guy. John Spilsbury, a London cartographer and engraver created the first jigsaw puzzle in 1760 using a marquetry saw. It was accomplished by mounting maps on pieces of hardwood and cutting along the countries’ borders. These “dissected maps” were helpful for teaching geography to children of the upper classes, including the nobility. However, during the Great Depression, jigsaw puzzles’ popularity rose as a source of cheap, durable, more complex entertainment. Shedding their childish image to even be used in advertising and to promote products.
Japanese Puzzle Boxes
In the 1800s, the himitsu-bako, AKA Japanese puzzle boxes gained popularity with tourists of the region wedged between Osaka and Tokyo. With humble beginnings as hideaways for small items like needle and thread, by the later part of the nineteenth century, the boxes took on more of their current form, larger and more elaborate. Used to stash away tools as well as secret messages, these sikake-bako (trick box) or tei-bako (clever box) utilize a precise sequence, some as simple as four moves and others as complex as 60 moves. Local artisans Ohkawa, Okiyama and Kikukawa employed Hakone region mosaic wood marquetry called yosegi-zaiku to craft the contemporary puzzle box.
Piet Hein, a Danish polymath who was a member of the Danish resistance during World War II and helped shape modern Scandinavian architecture, invented the Soma Cube in 1933. The idea for the Soma Cube occurred to Hein during a lecture on quantum physics where German physicist Werner Heisenberg spoke of “a space sliced into cubes.” Unit cubes formed into seven pieces are used to assemble a 3x3x3 cube. You can also create other 3D shapes with the pieces. There are 240 clear solutions to the Soma Cube puzzle, excluding rotations and reflections.
Of course, the cube that goes down in history as the clear favorite among Generation X and beyond goes to the Rubik’s Cube.
Invented in 1974 by Erno Rubik, a Hungarian sculptor and professor at the Academy of Applied Arts and Design, the puzzle won German Game of the Year in 1980. The Rubik’s Cube contains 26 individual elements to create the one big cube. Each row/column can twist and layers can overlap, except diagonally. Complete the game by matching the colors on all six faces. Only one correct sequence for solving the puzzle and so many chances for a wrong turn. Now, the new object of the puzzle isn’t just to solve it, but how fast you can. These “speedcubers,” include current Guinness World Record holder Du Yusheng of China with a single time of 3.47 seconds.
Living in an increasingly digital age, we couldn’t forget the importance of games designed for use on tablets, phones and other mobiles devices.
It may not have started in the digital era, but the crossword puzzle is still a favorite among online gamers. The present version of the popular New York Times staple was published by British journalist Arthur Wynne in 1913.
Sudoku is another well-known online puzzle, more inclined to lovers of numbers over words. Though initially published anonymously, credit for the modern Sudoku is given to Howard Garns, a retired American architect and freelance puzzle constructor.
And who would have thought that stacking endless layers of different shaped tiles as they fell from above would create so many hours of simultaneous joy and frustration?! Tetris was the first Russian entertainment software imported into the United States. Created by Russian video game designer and computer engineer Alexey Pajitnov in 1984, Tetris began its dominance when it was released for the Nintendo Game Boy in 1989. Not surprisingly, even once earning the title of “Greatest Game of All Time.”
There’s no coincidence that puzzles and games are often mentioned in the same category. It’s highly enjoyable to challenge yourself to solve an obstacle, whether it’s something as simple as a word game clue or something a little more involved like how to find your way through unknown terrain (thanks GPS!).
You’re highly more likely to find the answers you’re searching for if you keep your brain primed with fun distractions like the occasional puzzle and also if you actually enjoy the journey to your eureka moment. Make sure to pick the right kind of puzzle/invention to fit your unique personality.
Cf. Martin Gardner (1961). The 2nd Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles & Diversions. New York: Simon & Schuster. Reprinted in 1987 by University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-28253-8, p. 65