Collector's Corner: Slide Block Puzzles
By Michele Alice
I acquired my first mechanical puzzle from the neighborhood five-and-dime when I was six. It was a slide block puzzle known as the "15 Puzzle." It consisted of 15 small numbered plastic tiles in a square tray that had to be moved (slid) one at a time via an empty space until they were arranged sequentially.
By definition, the solutions to mechanical puzzles are obtained by the physical manipulations of their parts. The slide block puzzle shares the "sequential movement" subcategory of mechanical puzzles with such other classics as Peg Solitaire and Rubik's Cube.
The early history of slide puzzles is uncertain, but the classic "Puzzle of 15" dates to about 1865 when it was first manufactured by the Embossing Company of New York. A famous variation of the "15" was Sam Loyd's "14-15 Puzzle" of the 1870's in which numbered blocks were arranged in a box with only the 14 and 15 reversed. A $1000 prize was offered to anyone who could solve the puzzle by rearranging (sliding) the pieces so that all were in correct order. Loyd's puzzle is insoluble, however: slide puzzles with square pieces can initially be arranged in any sequence, but only those sequences that require an even number of moves to complete have solutions!
Early slide block puzzles, like the two mentioned above, were generally of wood or thick cardboard pieces arranged in a box sporting colorful graphics. From almost the beginning, however, designers were not content to confine themselves to plain numbered puzzles. Old puzzles like "Get My Goat" (1914), "Line Up the Quinties" (1934), and "Panama Canal" (unknown date) used differing shaped pieces, letters, and drawings to make their games more interesting.
Over the years, innumerable puzzles have been used as advertising or promotional items (Pepsi, British Gas, Zoloft, etc.), souvenirs (Churchill Downs, Hollywood Bowl, etc.), or tie-ins (Star Trek, Spiderman, Batman, etc.). Add in all the puzzles of animals, dinosaurs, famous works of art, and even Planet Earth itself, (just to name a fraction of what's out there), and it's easy to see that there's no limit to a collector's potential delight.
As with any collectible, puzzle prices can vary widely according to condition and supply. Many of the older puzzles are either extremely rare, are missing pieces, or have badly damaged packaging. (For a terrific explanation on how to repair split corners on any cardboard box without the use of tape, check out http://www.thegamesjournal.com/articles/RepairingBoxes.shtml.)
In addition, many of the earlier puzzles lacked copyright or edition dates, making identification of original items more difficult. To that end, the following books and Web sites are recommended:
Sliding Piece Puzzles, by Edward Hordern http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0198532040/auctionbytescom
Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors (AGPC.org)
"International organization for collectors and researchers who share a common interest in the history and preservation of games and puzzles."
Elliott Avedon Museum and Archive of Games
University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
Game index, virtual exhibits, FAQs.
Interesting discussion of puzzle's solutions; links to "15" puzzles on the Internet.
The History of the 15 Puzzle
Concise, illustrated history concentrating on Sam Loyd's famous "14-15" puzzle.
Comprehensive resource on mechanical puzzles. Discusses hundreds of puzzles. Photos.
Puzzle World Forums
Discussion on researching puzzle patents.
Just for fun, try these sites to play Online Slide Puzzles:
About the author:
Michele Alice is EcommerceBytes Update Contributing Editor. Michele is a freelance writer in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. She collects books, science fiction memorabilia and more! Email her at makalice @ adelphia.net eBay ID: Malice9
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