The First Viral Handheld Puzzle Game?

It’s fair to say that PuzzleNation knows a little something about the world of mobile puzzling. Mobile apps are our bread and butter, after all, and whether you’re talking about our Daily POP Crosswords App or the Penny Dell Crosswords App, we are connoisseurs of puzzles that fit in your pocket.

Of course, puzzle apps are a relatively new addition to the genre. Mobile puzzles, like matchstick puzzles, have existed for centuries.

In fact, more than a hundred years ago, a mobile puzzle game went “viral” and became a cultural sensation. (And it has made a recent return to prominence thanks to the HBO drama Westworld.)

Today, let’s talk about Pigs in Clover.

Pigs in Clover is a ball-in-a-maze puzzle invented in 1899 by toymaker Charles Martin Crandall. Although puzzle historians aren’t sure if Pigs in Clover was the first ball-in-a-maze puzzle created, it was definitely the first to capture the imagination of consumers.

You’ve probably solved a ball-in-a-maze puzzle at some point in your life. From the flat disc and labyrinth-inspired models to spherical and more complicated three-dimensional versions, they’re a fun test of both dexterity and strategic thinking.

A quick Google image search turns up dozens of variations on the concept, including an iPhone case with two ball-in-a-maze puzzles built into it!

Pigs in Clover was a simpler design, involving only three rings and a center “pen” to herd the “pigs” into. But it’s one that was supposedly so popular upon launch in January of 1889, it impacted the actual operation of the U.S. government.

But how popular was “popular” in 1889?

Well, according to the Waverly Free Press, “The toy works are turning out eight thousand of ‘Pigs in Clover’ a day, and are twenty days behind with their orders.” According to some sources, over a million games were sold by late April 1889!

And one of those games found its way into the hands of William M. Evarts, senator from New York. Depending on the version of events you read, he purchased a copy of Pigs in Clover from either a street vendor or, curiously, an aggressive street fakir.

He then took it home and played with it for hours. At work the next day — and by work, I mean the Senate of the United States — another senator, George Graham Vest, borrowed it and went to the cloak room to try to solve the puzzle game.

Yes, a sitting U.S. senator went and hid in the coats to play this game. It’s sorta like hiding under all the coats at a Christmas party and playing Angry Birds, except in fancier clothing.

Oddly enough, Vest was soon joined in the cloak room by four other senators — Pugh, Eustis, Walthall, and Kenna — who were also interested in trying their hands at the popular game. Apparently, they were too impatient to share Evarts’ copy of the game, since a page was enlisted to go out and buy five more copies of Pigs in Clover for the distracted senators.

Once each had his own game in hand, they engaged in a pig-driving contest. It must’ve been harder than it looks, since it took Vest 30 minutes to herd all of his pigs into the pen.

Yup, at least half an hour of senate business was derailed by a few little metal balls in a cardboard maze. Amazing.

Naturally, the story got out, and a political cartoon in the New York World on March 17th commented on this peculiar delay in President Benjamin Harrison’s agenda, likening the political landscape to the game. With the White House as the pen and various lawmakers as the pigs, the cartoon asked, “Will Mr. Harrison be able to get all these hungry pigs in the official pen?”

It makes you wonder just how many man-hours were lost to Pigs in Clover! After all, a simple game — solved by many — can prove costly.

Remember the Google Doodle in 2010 that allowed you to play Pac-Man? It’s estimated it cost $120 million dollars, and nearly five million hours, in terms of productivity.

Sounds like President Harrison should count himself lucky it was just a half-dozen senators… as far as we know.

[Sources for this article: The Strong Museum of Play, Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, Le Roy Historical Society, Antique Toy Collectors of America, Wikipedia, and A History of Video Games in 64 Objects.]


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Puzzles Come to Life!

A few years ago, I wrote about the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle, a 5 feet by 19 feet, 33,000-piece monster called “Wildlife,” which took a young puzzle enthusiast 450 hours to complete.

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That was a cool story in and of itself, but as it turns out, some other puzzlers have gone one step further, using the Wildlife jigsaw puzzle as their canvas for a stop-motion animation video.

This YouTuber, who goes by the name of Sky!, transformed the Wildlife puzzle into games of Tetris, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Mario Brothers, using completed sections of the puzzle as their gameplay elements.

It’s absolutely mind-blowing. Check it out:

Apparently, it took Sky! and a cohort over 400 hours to solve the puzzle and another 400 hours to animate the video. That is some serious dedication.

But that video got me thinking about other ways creative folks have used puzzly elements to tell stories.

And I was reminded of a video that’s been making the rounds on social media lately. It employs one of my favorite puzzle devices — a Rube Goldberg machine — to tell a story of three brothers who face danger and live to tell the tale. (They do use a bit of stop-motion animation at the start, but afterward, it’s all real-time motion.)

This is the story of a ball named Biisuke. Enjoy!

It’s adorable and even has a song! How could you not love that?

It just goes to show you there’s no end to the puzzly stories you can tell with a little creativity.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Square One TV

Puzzles in Pop Culture is all about chronicling those moments in TV, film, literature, art, and elsewhere in which puzzles play a key role. In previous installments, we’ve tackled everything from The West Wing, The Simpsons, and M*A*S*H to MacGyver, Gilmore Girls, and various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes.

And in today’s edition, we’re jumping into the Wayback Machine and looking back at the math-fueled equivalent of Sesame Street: Square One TV!

[The intro to Square One TV, looking more than a little dated these days.]

This PBS show ran from 1987 to 1994 (although reruns took over in 1992), airing five days a week and featuring all sorts of math-themed programming. Armed with a small recurring group of actors, the writers and producers of Square One TV offered many clever (if slightly cheesy) ideas for presenting different mathematical concepts to its intended audience.

Whether they were explaining pie charts and percentages with a game show parody or employing math-related magic tricks with the aid of magician Harry Blackstone, Jr., the sketches were simple enough for younger viewers, but funny enough for older viewers.

In addition to musical parodies performed by the cast, several famous musicians contributed to the show as well. “Weird Al” Yankovic, Bobby McFerrin, The Fat Boys, and Kid ‘n’ Play were among the guests helped explain fractions, tessellations, and other topics.

[One of the many math-themed songs featured on the show.]

Two of the most famous recurring segments on Square One TV were Mathman and Mathcourt. (Sensing a theme here?)

Mathman was a Pac-Man ripoff who would eat his way around an arcade grid until he reached a number or a question mark (depending on this particular segment’s subject).

For instance, if he came to a question mark and it revealed “3 > 2”, he could eat the ratio, because it’s mathematically correct, and then move onward. But if he ate the ratio “3 < 2”, he would be pursued by Mr. Glitch, the tornado antagonist of the game. (The announcer would always introduce Mr. Glitch with an unflattering adjective like contemptible, inconsiderate, devious, reckless, insidious, inflated, ill-tempered, shallow, or surreptitious.)

Mathcourt, on the other hand, gave us a word problem in the form of a court case, leaving the less-than-impressed district attorney and judge to establish whether the accused (usually someone much savvier at math than them) was correct or incorrect. As a sucker for The People’s Court-style shenanigans, this recurring segment was a personal favorite of mine.

But from a puzzle-solving standpoint, MathNet was easily the puzzliest part of the program. Detectives George Frankly and Kate Tuesday would use math to solve baffling crimes. Whether it was a missing house, a parrot theft, or a Broadway performer’s kidnapping, George and Kate could rely on math to help them save the day.

These segments were told in five parts (one per day for a full week), using the Dragnet formula to tackle all sorts of mathematical concepts, from the Fibonacci sequence to calculating angles of reflection and refraction.

These were essentially word problems, logic problems, and other puzzles involving logic or deduction, but with a criminal twist. Think more Law & Order: LCD than Law & Order: SVU.

Granted, given all the robberies and kidnappings the MathNet team faced, these segments weren’t aiming as young or as silly as much of Square One TV‘s usual fare, but they are easily the most fondly remembered aspect of the show for fans and casual viewers alike.

Given the topic of Tuesday’s post — the value of recreational math — it seemed only fitting to use today’s post to discuss one of the best examples of math-made-fun in television history.

Square One TV may not have been nearly as successful or as long-lasting as its Muppet-friendly counterpart, but its legacy lives on in the hearts and memories of many puzzlers these days.


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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!