The Oldest Puzzle in History?

archimedes

[Archimedes, looking disappointed for some reason. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Imagine the first puzzle. The very first one. What form would it take? Would it involve words? Numbers? Pictures? Would it be a riddle? A jigsaw? Would there be pieces to move around and place? Would it require scratchings in ink and quill to solve, or marks on a clay tablet?

It’s hard to visualize, isn’t it?

The subject of today’s blog post was probably not the first puzzle, but it’s the oldest puzzle that we can trace back to its origins. And those origins are more than two thousand years in the past.

Fellow puzzlers, allow me to introduce the Ostomachion.

ostomachion2

[The puzzle can be found in paper, wood, plastic, and other forms. The original was supposedly made from bone. Image courtesy of Oh So Souvenir.]

The Ostomachion, also known as the Stomachion, the Syntemachion, the Loculus of Archimedes, or Archimedes’ Square, consists of 14 shapes that can be arranged to fill a square.

Created by Archimedes in the 3rd century B.C., the Ostomachion might’ve vanished from history if not for the clever investigative skills of researchers. You see, the Ostomachion was among other writings by Archimedes that were transcribed into a manuscript in 10th-century Constantinople. The manuscript was then scraped clean and reused in the 13th-century as a Christian religious text (becoming a palimpsest in the process), where it remained until at least the 16th century.

archimedespalimpsest

[Image courtesy of Harvard. Yes, that Harvard.]

Thankfully, the erasure was incomplete, and in 1840, a Biblical scholar named Constantin von Tischendorf noted the Greek mathematics still visible beneath the prayer text. Another scholar recognized it as the work of Archimedes.

After changing hands multiple times, being sold (most likely illegally), modified by a forger, and then finally allowed to be scanned with UV, infrared, and other spectral bands, revealing the full mathematical text (as well as other works, all of which are now available online).

This palimpsest is the only known copy of both the Ostomachion and another Archimedean work, “The Method of Mechanical Theorems.”

ostoshapes

[Shapes to be solved. Image courtesy of Latinata.]

So, all that trouble for a place-the-pieces puzzle? Obviously there’s a bit more at play here.

After a solver has managed to fill the square , they are invited to use the pieces to make a variety of different shapes (similar to tangram puzzles). Players could compete to see who could use all of the pieces to form the different shapes first. It’s believed that this is where the name Ostomachion came from, as it translates to “bone fight” in Greek.

But, naturally, Archimedes didn’t stop there, delving into the mathematics of the puzzle itself, and trying to calculate how many unique solutions there were to the Ostomachion square. How many different ways could you fill the square?

osto-loculus17

[Cutler’s 17th solution. Image courtesy of MathPuzzle.com.]

That question wouldn’t be answered until 2003, when Bill Cutler — a mathematician with a doctorate in mathematics from Cornell — and some brute-force computing figured out that there were 17,152 solutions.

Seventeen thousand.

But, wait, it’s a square. So, technically, there must be quite a bit of overlap in those solutions, since some of them would be rotations or reflections of other solutions.

So what’s the real answer?

536. 536 distinct solutions. (You can view them all here.)

And it only took 2200 years to find out.

That, my fellow PuzzleNationers, is quite a puzzle.


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The Future of Crosswords: Multilingual Grids?

[Image courtesy of Seton.]

Anyone familiar with crosswords these days knows that you need more than a thorough knowledge of English to be a topnotch solver these days.

Sure, English is still the basis for the vast majority of crosswords you’ll encounter — even if some weird, unexpected, and obscure words pop in from time to time — but you’ll need a grasp of other languages to complete most grids these days. (And I’m not just talking about European rivers or foreign currencies.)

After all, the Greek alphabet shows up in crosswords all the time. I can’t recall the last grid I completed that didn’t have ETA, IOTA, RHO, or PHI in it. And clues like “Fraternity letter” are rarely specific enough to help you fill the clue on your first try.

[Image courtesy of Greek Boston.]

You need to know your Latin to solve puzzles too. ET TU, AD HOC, DIES IRAE… plenty of words and phrases pilfered from Latin litter crossword grids.

The modern crossword will send you on a linguistic tour of the globe. From “Scottish Gaelic” for ERSE and “Indian nanny” for AMAH to “Kimono sash” for OBI and “German mister” for HERR, you could visit the languages of half a dozen countries in a single crossword.

But if you’re talking about other languages in crosswords, the top two are undoubtedly Spanish and French.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Spanish and French words are so common that Wordplay, the blog dedicated to The New York Times crossword, has entire articles dedicated to Spanish and French words you need to know.

For Spanish, they list entries like BESO for “kiss,” ESTA for “this,” and RIATA for “rope.” (Though they missed TIO/TIA for “uncle/aunt” in their rundown.)

On the French side of things, you get common crossword entries like AMI for “friend,” ROI for “king,” or SEL for “salt.”

(The crew at Crossword Unclued even wrote an article about how often French words are used in Cryptic-style cluing, for fans of that version of crosswording.)

[No, something a little tougher than that. Image courtesy of Mommy Maestra.]

All this multilingual puzzling made me wonder… has anyone tried to create a bilingual crossword? I’m talking about a crossword where a significant portion of the entries (if not half) are from a second language.

As it turns out, constructor Bryan Betancur recently accepted that challenge, creating “Bilingual Puzzle #1.” This puzzle not only features a fair number of Spanish words in the grid — not as filler but as significant entries (which I won’t mention, in case you want to solve it yourself!) — but many of the clues for Spanish AND English words are written in Spanish, ensuring a mental challenge beyond the usual crossword fare.

Yes, it was a confusing solve not to know whether the answer to a given clue would be English or Spanish, but that made it all the more satisfying when I was able to confidentally place words in the grid.

It’s the only crossword on the WordPress Blog “Bilingual Crossword,” but here’s hoping others join it soon.

In the cultural melting pot that is modern society, there’s not only opportunity for inclusivity, but there’s also opportunity for challenging, bilingual crossword grids to pique your interest (and make you wish you’d paid more attention in high school foreign language classes).


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