The History of Puzzles: Background, Facts, and Trivia

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The history of puzzles stretches back millennia, with ancient civilizations playing with puzzles not unlike some of the types we love today. The word “puzzle” generally refers to jigsaw puzzles, but the concepts of solving puzzles and riddles date back to Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, encompassing a much broader range of skill-based games that test human skill and knowledge.

Read on to learn fun facts about the history of puzzles, such as who invented the jigsaw puzzle, when were they first created, and more trivia tidbits about our favorite brainteasers. 

Key Takeaways

  • Puzzles of all sorts can trace their origins back to ancient civilizations, with the creation of the labyrinth in Ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt.
  • Jigsaw puzzles were created in the 18th century, originally intended as educational tools with maps to teach students world geography.
  • In the 19th and 20th centuries, jigsaw puzzles exploded in popularity and became more affordable thanks to wood printing and cutting technology advancements.
  • Today, puzzles are more popular than ever following the COVID-19 pandemic, with many shapes, styles, and difficulty levels available on the market.

History of Jigsaw Puzzles

Ancient history

Some of civilization’s oldest puzzles were riddles, codes, or verbal brainteasers. Around 2,300 B.C., historians observed the emergence of the labyrinth in Greek and Egyptian documents. As told in Greek mythology, the myth of the monstrous Minotaur heavily involves the maze-like labyrinth, which was meant to confuse and challenge participants on their quest to escape or get to the center. 

Around 1,000 B.C. and onward, various Chinese puzzle objects entered the scene. These were as much about fun problem-solving as they were philosophical inquiries into the patterns and systems of the cosmos. These puzzles include Lo-Shu Square, Bagua, and various puzzle containers.

In 200 B.C., intricate locking puzzles became more popular across the world. Around the same time, Archimedes used puzzles to solve complex geometric problems; for example, his geometric dissection puzzle, the Ostomachion (also called Archimedes’ Box).

18th and 19th centuries

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, jigsaw puzzles emerged on the scene as a popular form of entertainment. 

Jigsaw puzzles were originally created as educational tools, involving pictures mounted on thin pieces of wood and carefully cut into irregular pieces. These puzzles became hugely popular, both in educational settings and as entertaining games for people of all ages.

20th century

The 1900's saw puzzles take off in popularity, though they experienced many changes in this time. 

Jigsaw puzzles of the early 20th century lacked instruction manuals or clear guidance, such as pictures on the box or difficulty levels. Production methods also saw prices that, in today’s currency, would level around $150 – thus, we can assume that while puzzles were beloved, they were still reserved for the elite with leisure time to spare.

By 1909, however, lithographic printing techniques saw considerable advancements, which made it easier to print high-quality wood puzzle pieces cheaply. Colors and images became brighter and detailed, making the puzzles more visually attractive.

The advent of plywood as a puzzle-making supply also came onto the scene around this time. Thin layers of wood stuck together made cutting through into puzzle shapes even easier, making puzzles more affordable. 

With the increased affordability, people would rush to get the latest weekly puzzle and bond within their community over who could complete them the fastest. This excitement, in turn, motivated manufacturers, who, over the decades, created puzzles in different colors, sizes, shapes, and styles. 

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Who Invented Puzzles?

While jigsaw puzzles only emerged in the 18th century, we can credit the invention of puzzles to several notable puzzle creators and civilizations across ancient and modern history. Historians have never settled on a single inventor of puzzles as a whole, but they first appeared in either Ancient Greece or Egypt.

The first-ever jigsaw puzzles date back to the 1760s, when John Spilsbury, a European engraver and mapmaker, invented it by gluing a map onto a block of wood and cutting it into intricate pieces. European mapmakers created these as educational toys, and many children today still use map puzzles to learn U.S. or world geography.

Another such creator key to puzzle history is Sam Loyd, an American puzzle maker who lived in the 19th century. Loyd is known for his mathematical and logical puzzles and his ability to create intricate mechanical puzzles. He is often credited with popularizing the sliding block puzzle, also known as the 15 puzzle, which became a worldwide sensation in the late 1800s.

Lastly, Will Shortz, an American puzzle creator and editor, has made significant contributions to the world of puzzles. Shortz is the crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times and is widely regarded as the most prominent figure in the world of crosswords. Over the decades, he has created numerous puzzles and dedicated his career to promoting and popularizing puzzles through various media outlets. Shortz's passion for puzzles has made him a beloved figure among puzzle enthusiasts and has helped bring puzzles into the mainstream.

Puzzles Today

Winding ahead to the present through the long history of puzzles, these games have seen an incredible resurgence in popularity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When people around the world were stuck at home during lockdown, puzzles became an engaging way to reconnect in person in an increasingly digital world. During the height of the pandemic, some manufacturers even sold out of their puzzles for months due to such high demand.

With the advent of the digital age, too, puzzles have taken on a new form. Online puzzles and mobile applications have made puzzles more accessible and convenient. Virtual puzzles offer various options, from traditional jigsaw puzzles to logic puzzles and brain teasers. 

The digital medium also expands on existing puzzle formats, allowing for interactive features such as hints and timers to enhance the overall puzzle-solving experience. Puzzles have also found their way into video games, with puzzle-solving serving as a core element of many popular titles.

Puzzles have remained a constant source of interest for human beings throughout history. They stimulate the mind, bring friends together, and challenge even the loftiest philosophers, all while providing endless entertainment for people of all ages.

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