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History of Tangrams

The invention of the tangram puzzle is unrecorded in history. The earliest known Chinese book is dated 1813 but the puzzle was very old by then. One reason for this could be that in China, it's country of origin, at the time it was considered a game for women and children. This would have made it unworthy of "serious" study and unlikely to be written about. Different times, different ways of thinking. Glad that's changing.

The roots of the word Tangram are also shrouded in time, with a number of possible explanations. The one I like best involves the Tanka people. These river people of China were great traders who were involved in the opium trade. The western sailors they traded opium to likely played with the puzzle when they visited their Tanka girlfriends. The story I believe is that it comes from the obsolete English word "tramgram" meaning puzzle or trinket.

Tangrams enjoyed a surge of interest during the 19th century in Europe and America.This, no doubt, was due to the opening up of trade with China and the aforementioned sailors bringing home new found amusements. "The Chinese Puzzle" spawned a flood of books and picture card sets. Some quite elaborate Chinese examples exist with pieces carved from and/or inlaid with ivory, jade and other fine materials. Others were cheap, locally made copies in wood or fired clay. Some books blindly reproduced previous mistakes in the patterns. Some things never change.

In 1903, Sam Loyd wrote his great spoof of tangram history, The Eighth Book Of Tan. He had many people convinced that the game was invented 4000 years ago by the god Tan. According to Loyd, the first 7 Books Of Tan were linked with many famous people and historical events. All very convincing and it made Sam a lot of money. Later examination showed it to be a colossal joke. The book did catalog over 600 patterns, many by Loyd himself. He also introduced (along with H. F. Dudeney) the idea of paradoxes.

Fu Tsiang Wang and Chuan-chin Hsiung mathematically proved in 1942 the existance of a finite set of patterns refered to as "convex." In this context, it means that there are no indentations along the outside edge. There are only 13 silhouettes that qualify. Other finite sets may exist.

Tangrams continue to entertain and frustrate now days. The puzzle attracts people on a number of levels. It gets the math inclined with the geometry and ratios of the pieces. The figures spark visually inclined people though their form, liveliness and striking simplicity. It is one of the classic puzzles, appealing to young and old, the serious and the carefree. Go make one and enjoy it.

Tangrams is an ancient art. The story goes that this form of recreation has never been improved upon since the legendary Chinaman Tan first conceived of it. In Chinese this puzzle is called ch'i ch'iao t'u. This translates to 'ingenious-puzzle figure of seven pieces'. Lewis Carroll was reputed to have been a great fan of tangrams. He is said to have had in his possession a Chinese book made of tissue paper which had 323 tangram designs in it. Whatever the origins, this excellent puzzle game is still widely used today. To play you simply need to rearrange the seven forms to exactly reproduce the given image. These images are either geometric in nature or patterned after a familiar object. It is not as easy as it first appears. This is an excellent exercise in spatial coordination and being able to discern the whole from its randomly scattered parts. This develops spatial pattern recognition.

From Enchanted Mind (see their web site).

Issue 32 - 24/4/03