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Lilly Library

Rational Amusements: Nineteenth-Century Puzzles on Exhibition in the Slocum Room

"Kopfzerbrecher," Anchor #8. F. Ad. Richter & Co., 1899

“Kopfzerbrecher,” Anchor #8. F. Ad. Richter & Co., 1899

One of the puzzle exhibitions this fall at the Lilly Library features puzzles from the last half of the nineteenth century. During this time period, people began to find themselves with more leisure time, and puzzles were one way that they entertained themselves and also exercised their intellects. This exhibition features the different types of amusements that were available in the late nineteenth century.

One particularly famous group of puzzles in the exhibition are the Richter Anker puzzles. Also referred to as the Anchor Stone Puzzles, they were created by the F. Ad. Richter Company of Rudolstadt, Germany (Slocum and Gebhardt 12-13). Through the company’s association with the Kindergarten educational movement, Richter began developing building block sets and other materials for educators to use (Slocum and Gebhardt 14-15).

Soon after the Richter Company developed a ceramic stone version of the Tangram, a puzzle popular with likeminded educators, which they called Der Kopfzerbrecher (Slocum and Gebhardt 20-21). Also called The Anchor Puzzle in English due to the company’s ship anchor logo, this puzzle was the first in a long line of puzzles from the company. Other puzzles from the Richter Company featured in the exhibition include the Kreis-Rätsel (Circular Puzzle), the Kreuzzerbrecher (Cross Breaker), the Blitzableiter (Lightning Conductor), and the Kobold (The Goblin).

Another famous puzzle featured in the exhibition is The 15 Puzzle. This puzzle created a craze in 1880 that was unrivaled until the production of the Rubik’s Cube. The object of the puzzle is to take a set of numbered block, place them in the provided tray in a random order and then slide the numbers to achieve the correct numerical order. One of the reasons this puzzle created such a craze was the fact that when the blocks are placed randomly, half of the time the puzzle is unsolvable. This led to situations in which one person would solve the puzzle and then give it to another person who would start from one of the impossible positions.

For a number of years the true designer of the puzzle was a mystery. Great American puzzle designer Sam Loyd claimed that he created the puzzle, accepting the fame and infamy that came with it. However, puzzle researchers Jerry Slocum and Dic Sonneveld were able to find definitive evidence that the designer was a postmaster from Canastota, New York, Noyes Chapman (109). Unfortunately for Mr. Chapman, his patent for The 15 Puzzle was rejected, most likely because it resembled another patent submitted a year earlier (Slocum and Sonneveld 100-102). Soon afterwards the puzzle traveled by word of mouth to Boston where it was first commercially produced by Matthias Rice (Slocum and Sonneveld 109).

Other puzzles include classic take-apart puzzles that are featured in Professor Hoffmann’s classic work Puzzles Old and New. Professor Hoffmann, pseudonym of English lawyer Angelo John Lewis, was the first writer to categorize puzzles. The book is considered an authority on the puzzles of the period and provided collectors in the late nineteenth century with a wealth of information previously unavailable (Hoffmann vi). Some puzzles have become so associated with Hoffmann’s book that they are known even today as “Hoffmann” puzzles (Hoffmann vi). In the exhibition are examples, both from the nineteenth century and modern reproductions, of these classic “Hoffmann” puzzles.

These items and more nineteenth century puzzles are available in this Slocum Room exhibition, where you can see the wide array of intellectual amusements that were available in the late nineteenth century. The exhibition will run until the end of the fall semester.

Andrew Rhoda

Curator of Puzzles

Cannon and Ball, ca. 1886

Cannon and Ball, ca. 1886

Works Cited

Hoffmann, Professor. Puzzles Old and New. London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1893.

—. Puzzles Old and New. Ed. L. E. Horden. Facsimile edition. London: Martin Bresse Limited, 1988.

Slocum, Jerry and Dic Sonneveld. The 15 Puzzle: How it Drove the World Crazy. Beverly Hills, CA: The Slocum Puzzle Foundation, 2006.

Slocum, Jerry and Dieter Gebhardt. The Anchor Puzzle Book: The Amazing Stories of More Than 50 New Puzzles Made of Stone. Beverly Hills, CA: The Slocum Puzzle Foundation, 2012.