A Brief History Of Puzzles

Humans have enjoyed challenging themselves with puzzles for millennia. From the rudimentary wooden puzzles of ancient Egypt to the mind-bending mathematical problems of Albert Einstein, people have always sought the mental stimulation puzzles offer—whether it be for entertainment or higher, more scientific purposes.

Today, puzzles come in all shapes, sizes, and genres. Jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, Rubik’s Cubes, and Sudoku are just some examples of puzzles that are popular today. Though there are many types to choose from, all puzzles have one unifying characteristic: they test a user’s ingenuity. Sometimes there is no better satisfaction than “putting together all the pieces” after many hours of tinkering, deducing, pondering, and studying. The feeling of solving a puzzle is second to none.

Though the origin of the word “puzzle” is unknown, we do know a little about how modern puzzles came to be. Here is a brief history of all things puzzles.

The Ancient World

Some of the earliest puzzles date back to ancient Egypt, with archaeologists finding puzzles in Egyptian tombs. One such puzzle was shaped like a pyramid and consisted of five wooden pieces. The goal of the puzzle was to take the pieces apart and then put them back together. Another type of puzzle discovered was a wooden maze that contained a small ball that needed to find its way to the center of the labyrinth.

Ancient Romans and Greeks, known for their love of sharpening their logic and reasoning skills, were prolific puzzle makers. The earliest known puzzle book is a collection of riddles called the “Aenigmata,” written by the Greek poet and inventor, Symphosius. It was composed around 100 AD and contains about 150 riddles in Latin. Likewise, the Roman author, Aulus Gellius, wrote about a variety of puzzles that were popular during his time.

Meanwhile, puzzles were also enjoying immense popularity in ancient China and India. China created a puzzle called the tangram, which is still popular today. This geometric puzzle consists of a square cut into seven pieces that has to be rearranged without overlap to make various other shapes. In India, some of the most influential mathematicians in the world were hard at work creating complex math problems that still puzzle students today.

The Middle Ages And Renaissance

In the Middle Ages, disentanglement puzzles were all the rage. Disentanglement puzzles consisted of several interlocking pieces that had to be “disentangled” from one another. Most commonly, these puzzles consisted of rope, rings, and wooden planks. A player had to find the right sequence in which to disentangle all the pieces. Disentanglement puzzles are thought to date back to the late 15th century.

During the Renaissance, an invention would change puzzle culture forever: The jigsaw puzzle. The first jigsaw puzzles were made in the 18th century, when European woodworkers created them by hand. Typically, puzzles were made by placing maps on sheets of wood and then cutting around the borders of nations, proving an effective way to teach geography. Despite the name, jigsaws were not used in the first iterations of these types of puzzles. John Spilsbury, a German-born artist, engraver, and inventor, commercialized the earliest known jigsaw puzzles, called “dissections,” in 1767.

Modern Era

For a while, only the wealthy were able to enjoy jigsaw puzzles, since they were costly to make. They were primarily used as educational tools for their children and featured mostly geography. But in the early 20th century, puzzles made the leap from educational tools for children to entertainment for adults. Cardboard options emerged that depicted a wide range of subjects that included animals, landscapes, castles, and people. A puzzle craze was born.

Though the jigsaw puzzles of the early 20th century were somewhat similar to what we know now, some key differences existed. While we’ve come to expect interlocking pieces from our modern puzzles, puzzles from this time period were often straight-edged. This meant an unsteady table or sneeze could send all your pieces and hard work flying everywhere at a moment’s notice. And to make things even more challenging, many puzzle boxes did not include a picture of what the puzzle was supposed to resemble, unlike the children’s puzzle boxes of this period.

Nevertheless, people could not get enough. When Parker Brothers introduced an interlocking puzzle in the early 1900s, the demand was so high Parker Brothers had to devote all their factories to puzzle production.

Not long after, another type of puzzle entered the hearts and minds of Americans: The crossword puzzle. Arthur Wynne, a journalist from Liverpool, published the first crossword puzzle in 1913 in the Sunday newspaper “New York World.” Wynne’s version was diamond-shaped and lacked the black squares of contemporary puzzles. By the 1920s, crossword puzzles were being picked up all over the country and by the 1930s were a mainstay in nearly every American newspaper.

Alongside crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles maintained immense popularity during the 1930s. The Great Depression, in fact, gave jigsaw puzzles a cultural resurgence, as they offered an inexpensive, time-consuming form of entertainment when days were long and money scarce.

Even today, jigsaw puzzles remain a popular pastime. From postwar into the 21st century, innovations and variety have kept appeal high. Today, puzzles can be made from every material under the sun. They can be in two dimensions or three. You can even make customized puzzles from your own photos and designs.

Where will puzzles go from here?

The future of puzzles is wide open. It’s hard to say what puzzles will look like in the future, but no matter which shape they take, puzzles will remain a fun way to keep your brain sharp while you spend time with your family and friends. So go ahead and design your own puzzle, whether it’s thinking up a new brain buster the world has never heard before or creating a customized jigsaw puzzle from a cherished photo of your own. The challenge is on!