Symposium draws ‘puzzle freaks’ from across the U.S.
By Josh Roselman
Published on Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Hordes of "puzzle freaks" -- builders, designers, obsessive solvers and general aficionados of mechanical puzzles -- flocked to Dartmouth for Mechanical Puzzles Day, an eight-hour celebration and symposium of the enigmatic gizmos on Tuesday.
The event, held in Kemeny Hall, included a series of lectures from eminent puzzle-makers and historians from all over the world, and culminated in a "puzzle party" at the end of the day.
The event is the brainchild of Dartmouth mathematics and computer science professor Peter Winkler when he was working on a mini-symposium for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, held Feb. 14-18.
"One of my colleagues was looking for ideas for mathematical mini-symposia, and I thought 'Gee, wouldn't it be fun to have the first-ever mini-symposium on puzzle design?'" he said.
It was not until Winkler got three of his favorite puzzle designers -- Stewart Coffin, William Cutler and Oskar van Deventer -- to speak at the event in Boston that Winkler was inspired to bring them to Dartmouth.
"These people are among the best in the world in what they do," he said.
Jerry Slocum, who Winkler described as "the world's foremost authority on mechanical puzzles," opened the symposium with a lecture on the history of puzzle design.
Slocum has been collecting puzzles for over 65 years, he said, and has studied their history for 30, collecting over 30,000 objects. According to Slocum, puzzles have always been prevalent in human culture, with artifacts dating back to 1000 B.C. in Cyprus.
The object of a puzzle has not always been amusement or intellectual stimulation, he said, but rather puzzles have been created for didactic, sometimes even nefarious purposes. For example, the first jigsaw puzzles, invented in 1760, depicted world maps in an attempt to provide educational tools for children, while early examples of "take apart" puzzles include rings with secret poison compartments that Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI and renowned femme fatale of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, used to dispose of her enemies.
In addition, many puzzles throughout history have been used for practical purposes.
"Before bank locks, people used trick locks and drawers to hide their valuables," Slocum said.
William Cutler and George Hart brought the discussion into the 20th century with presentations about modern instruments of puzzle creation, including computer design and laser cutting in the manufacturing process. Tom Lensch, who Winkler described as a "puzzle-maker extraordinaire," talked about how his background in engineering has become more useful in constructing increasingly complex puzzles.
Other notable talks included lectures by Coffin, a former engineer, farmer and canoe-maker, and van Deventer, who traveled from the Netherlands to attend the event. Both speakers shared their wide-ranging puzzle expertise, as well as a number of examples from their collections.
In between the speeches, students and visitors were invited to try their own hand at solving puzzles. The tasks were harder than they seemed, however, as puzzlers attempted to piece together, dismember, interlock and disentangle stumpers designed from a range of materials including wood, plastic and metal.
For the past few weeks, examples of mechanical puzzles have also been on display on the main floor of Baker-Berry Library, and a hands-on exhibit with puzzles from the Jerry Slocum Collection of Mechanical Puzzles, Brainteasers and Ingenious Objects will be showing at Kresge Library through the end of February.
Visitors came far and wide to exercise their problem-solving abilities, including a group of students from Smith College in Northampton, Mass.
Julia Wu, a senior at Smith, said she had heard about the program through her professors and was interested in learning about puzzles.
"I love puzzles," she said. "When I was a little kid I lived in China, we didn't have expensive electronic toys. Puzzles were all I had to play with."
Winkler said people are drawn to puzzles ultimately "because they're interesting."
"What makes a puzzle a great puzzle is not its difficulty, but its elegance, its idea," he said.
Coffin echoed these sentiments, saying that the object of his puzzles is the customer's amusement, but added that puzzles are just as much fun for their creators.
"I'm surprised that people pay so much for these puzzles, because I thought I was the one getting to joy out of them, creating them and discovering new ideas," he said.
Winkler said he hopes students become more interested in puzzles and mathematics after attending the event.
"Lots of students will see ideas they really like," he said. "I don't know, maybe we'll nab a math major in the process."