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What makes some puzzles so intriguing we’ll spend hours trying to solve them and even replay the same game again and again? Every year it seems, new fad puzzles enter the public eye, capturing attention across social media for varying amounts of time. Right now, you may have heard of or played Wordle or one of its spin-offs, such as Absurdle or Sweardle. Perhaps you still play Sudoku or Words with Friends. Over here at hBARSCI, some of us still love sitting down with a pen and a newspaper, ready to tackle whatever combination of horizontal and vertical clues await us in the daily crossword.
But not all puzzles are word-based, of course! And they’re certainly not all fads. Over the decades, many puzzles have survived generations. In the following, we look at a few of these: the Rubik’s Cube, jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, and tangrams. We’ll bet you’ve had a hand in completing all of these at some point in your life! To celebrate puzzles, Jodi Jill, professional quiz maker and a syndicated maker of puzzles, established January 29 as National Puzzle Day in 2002 to share her love of puzzles with everyone (“National Puzzle Day”). So read on to learn more about the history of four of humans’ favorite puzzles!
Ernõ Rubik, a professor from Budapest In Hungary, created the first working prototype of the cube in 1974 as a movable art piece for his students studying architecture. It took Rubik over a month to solve his own puzzle the first time. In September 1979, the puzzle was spotted in Nuremberg by toy specialist Tom Kremer, who convinced the Ideal Toy Company to distribute the “Magic Cube.” The company renamed the “Magic Cube” to Rubik’s Cube and a global launch took place in 1980 (“About”).
The cube’s success appeared to be short-lived, however. In 1982, The New York Times declared it had “become passe,” and labeled it a “fad,” an assertion that would not stand the test of time (Reese, 2020). Today, adults and children alike are encouraged to practice and hone their cube-solving skills. Cubing competitions bring cubers together in challenges testing the speed with which a human can solve a cube. Competitors are often referred to as speedcubers, a term that nods to the different skills that come together to make professional Rubik’s-cube-solvers successful. Check out the World Cube Association history page for more information.
The first jigsaw puzzle is believed to be created by London mapmaker John Spilsbury in the 1760s. He used a saw to cut a map mounted on a hardwood sheet, separating the map into pieces country by country, using the resulting puzzle to teach children geography. (And, ironically, according to Wikipedia, a jigsaw was never used!)
But it was during the Great Depression that the popularity of jigsaw puzzles began to soar as they provided employment and cheap entertainment (CBS News, 2020). Today, you can have almost any image turned into a custom jigsaw puzzle by uploading it to a specialty website. Usually made of cardboard, you can often choose the number of pieces your puzzle is made of!
Like many other kinds of puzzles, assembling jigsaw puzzles is believed to keep the brain active in ways that can ward off potentially debilitating diseases. According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, doing jigsaw puzzles is one of many activities that may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease (“Challenging Your Brain”). Note: Any brain-challenging activity, defined as working to improve on an activity you’re not familiar with or good at, can help you build your cognitive reserve.
Unlike the other puzzles mentioned in this blog post, the crossword taps our knowledge of language, vocabulary, and trivia for successful completion. The first crossword puzzle was published in 1913 on December 21 in the New York World, a Sunday Newspaper. Arthur Wynne created a page of puzzles for the “Fun” section of the Sunday edition of the New York World. For the December 21, 1913, edition, he introduced a puzzle with a diamond shape and a hollow center, with the letters F-U-N already being filled in. He called it a “Word-Cross Puzzle.” Check it out here!
Popularity of the puzzle immediately exploded, affecting publishers and librarians—who supplied puzzle-solvers with access to reference materials such as encyclopedias and dictionaries—and even breaking into other genres of pop media in a 1924 song called “Cross-word Mamma You Puzzle Me (But Papa’s Gonna Figure You Out).”
LIke the jigsaw puzzle, crosswords offered folks the opportunity to escape the stress of the World Wars. The diversion is still wildly popular today for similar reasons. Says Margaret Petherbridge Farrar, American journalist and the first crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times, “I don’t think I have to sell you on the increased demand for this type of pastime in an increasingly worried world. You can’t think of your troubles while solving a crossword” (Sagal, 2020).
Tangram, one of China’s most famous puzzles, enjoyed many waves of popularity between the 1800s and 1900s. Tangrams became very popular during the nineteenth century in Europe and America. This happened as trade with China opened up and the puzzles were able to travel across the continents.
In fact, you and/or your students or children may still use tangrams in school. Tangrams offer students a great opportunity to test out different geometric organizations and become familiar with the properties of the shapes they use, and many educators recommended their use in the classroom (Clements & Sarama, 2014; National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2003).
Tangrams consist of two large triangles, one medium triangle, two small triangles, one square, and one parallelogram (see image above, which can be blown up, printed, and cut to make your own set of tangrams!). The triangles that make up a set of tangrams are all the same shape—a particular kind of right triangle—including an isosceles triangle with two 45-degree angles and one 90-degree angle. If you put together two triangles of the same size, you can make a square. But these properties aren’t found in all triangles, so it’s still important to expose students to a variety of triangles—equilateral, isosceles, and scalene.
At hBARSCI, we have puzzle kits designed for students of all ages to do just this! Our 9 Piece Block Puzzle Kit allows kids to explore a variety of basic mathematical principles and concepts using wooden blocks. Elementary school children can use them to solve simplified versions of the magic square puzzle, middle school students can use the puzzle to explore the same puzzle in greater depth as well as play with arithmetic sequences (including the first few elements of the Fibonacci sequence). Beyond working out the complete solution to the magic square, high school students can use the kit to explore counting in binary up to 15 and, in classroom settings, counting in ternary up to 26.
And the Eisco Garage Physics line is aimed at students of all ages interested in STEM concepts including physics and engineering. Each kit engages learners in discovering new ideas about the physical world through assembly and play. The activities in their 9 Piece Block Kit put trigonometry directly in students’ hands, allowing sine, cosine, tangent, and the other trig functions take physical form and become real. Students can explore the definition of the radian unit of angular measurement and even come up with their own approximation of Pi with their own hands!
So what puzzles do you enjoy today? What puzzles do you children and students enjoy? Celebrate National Puzzle Day tomorrow, January 29, by encouraging your inner puzzle-solver!
“About.” Rubik’s.com. https://www.rubiks.com/en-us/about
Amlen, D. (2019, Dec.). How the crossword became an American pastime. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/crossword-became-american-pastime-180973558/
CBS News. (202, Mar. 29). Piecing together the history of jigsaw puzzles. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/piecing-together-the-history-of-jigsaw-puzzles/
“Challenging Your Brain.” Alzheimer Society of Canada. https://alzheimer.ca/en/help-support/im-living-dementia/living-well-dementia/challenging-your-brain
Clements, D., & Sarama, J. (2014). Learning and teaching early math: The learning trajectories approach. Routledge.
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2003). Developing geometry understandings and spatial skills through puzzlelike problems with tangrams: Tangram challenges. http://www.nctm.org/
“National Puzzle Day.” National Days Today. https://www.nationaldaystoday.com/national-puzzle-day/
Reese, H. (2020, Sep. 23). The unlikely endurance of the Rubik’s Cube. Undark. https://undark.org/2020/09/23/endurance-of-rubiks-cube/
Sagal, P. (2020, Mar. 17). Here’s looking at you, grid: A history of crosswords and their fans. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/books/review/thinking-inside-the-box-crosswords-adrienne-raphel.html