The Twisted Literary History of the Puzzle

The Twisted Literary History of the Puzzle

One day in the 3rd Century BCE, Archimedes was hanging out in ancient Greece when he devised a dissection puzzle that he called the Ostomachion.  Big A described how to dissect a cube into 14 pieces, and asked how many different arrangements were possible (spoiler alert: there are 17,152 possible combinations). He wrote it down, and it was included with six other treatises by Archimedes that were compiled in roughly 530 CE, then copied over and over through the centuries but otherwise lost, the final copy being made by an unknown scribe in the 10th Century. That parchment sat around for three hundred years until sometime in the 13th Century, when a Byzantine scribe was short on blank parchment for the prayerbook he needed to copy. As was common practice at the time, he scraped the ink off some old, unused books, rotated the pages, and went to town, almost eradicating Archimedes’ puzzle. 

Fast forward to 1906, when Danish philologist Johan Ludvig Heiberg heard about an ancient book hidden in a Greek Orthodox monastery in Constantinople. The rumors said it contained an ancient mathematical text, hidden under the prayers. Using photos and magnifiers, Heiberg was able to recreate much of Archimedes’ writing, including the ostomachion, and the text became known as the Archimedes Palimpsest. But that’s far from the end of it. Soon after the translation was published, the book disappeared from the monastery–lost, sold, or stolen away–to this day nobody knows. It was occasionally heard of in France, in the possession of assorted book dealers and former resistance fighters; but nobody saw it again until the book resurfaced in Paris in 1998, when it went up for auction, purchased by an anonymous bidder for $2.2 million. Nobody knows the identity of the book’s current owner (it is said only to be “somebody in the tech industry, but not Bill Gates”), but they have granted it on long-term loan to the Walters Art Museum in, of all places, Baltimore Maryland. So if you want to see one of the few tangible ancient versions of Archimedes’ puzzle genius, all you need to do is book a flight to Charm City.

Your new puzzle book may not quite have that same Da Vinci Code vibe, but it is an astonishing volume. While many puzzle books are reprints or collections of older puzzles, Puzzle Box is a compilation of all new brain teasers, created by an incredible all-star team of today’s top puzzle minds: mathematicians, computer programmers, and more, all edited by the Grabarchuk family–legendary puzzlers in their own right. There are 17 different types of puzzles to scratch any kind of mental itch you happen to have.  And if you do have that itch, you’re not alone: last year the “puzzles market”–defined as brain teasers, slider puzzles, Rubik’s cubes, and jigsaw puzzles, were a $613 million dollar market in the US alone. That’s actually a remarkable growth, considering that in 2010, Americans spent just $358 million on puzzles. So from Archimedes’ time to now, puzzles may never have been more popular.

Speaking of sliding puzzles, here's one last bit of historic puzzle scoundrelly. In 1878, Sam Lloyd, perhaps one of the most famous puzzlers of all, introduced his Fourteen-Fifteen device to the masses. It was a small tray that could hold 16 small squares, with 15 filled squares and one empty space. The first 13 squares were numbered sequentially, but the 14th and 15th were reversed; the object was to put them in order, just by sliding the squares around.  It became an immense smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic. According to legend, business owners put up signs prohibiting employees from playing it at work; it was seen on the floor of the German Reichstag, being intensely fiddled with by dignified elder delegates; and Sam Lloyd himself posted a reward of $1,000 ($25,000 in today’s dollars) to anyone who could solve it! The 14-15 was basically the 19th century’s version of the Rubik’s Cube with one significant difference: it actually didn’t have a solution.  It was mathematically impossible to complete it as sold. In fact, when Lloyd tried to get a patent on the device, the U.S. Patent office refused because it required a working model with a solution, and he had to candidly admit the 14-15 puzzle didn’t have one. 

Unlike Lloyd’s, we promise that every single puzzle in this book has a workable solution; and we hope you enjoy hours of fun with them, just as we have!

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