Building structures out of stone blocks or wooden logs must undoubtedly be one of humankind's most primitive and deeply rooted instincts. Most ancient pastimes and games use pebbles, beans, scratch marks on the ground, and other such things that are readily at hand. Probably, many would associate the word puzzle with some tasks that are purposely confusing or difficult. The term puzzle is used just about any geometrical or logical recreation having parts that come apart and fit back together. These recreations in geometrical assembly patterns have a universal appeal that transcends all cultural boundaries and age groups.
Few Designs of Ilsung Mala.
The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word 'Puzzle' to the end of the 16th century. First as a 'verb' and later came to be used as an 'abstract noun' meaning 'the state or condition of being puzzled.' A similar meaning word, 'Edakoodam,' is familiar to most Malayalam-speaking folks in southern India. Which means 'a puzzle that is difficult to solve' or 'to do something thoughtlessly.' Incidentally, this word is also used as a noun for the burr puzzles.' 'Tharumaru' is another word in the native 'Tamil' language that means something 'not in order' used interchangeably in the place of Edakoodam.
Proper understanding of geometrical puzzles should probably begin with a historical overview. The problem is, one can usually find at least a brief written history of any possible subject, but not so for the geometrical puzzles. The marketing tactic of recent puzzle manufacturers is to invent stories of their ancient origins. Often, we see the source of many puzzle designs is an association with Eastern origins. There are similar legends on martial arts' roots in southern India and spreading with religious and cultural migrations to Eastern countries.
Given that the words like 'Edakoodam' in ancient languages like Malayalam and Tamil have a similar meaning to that of puzzles, they are probably closer to the truth. It is impossible to decipher many such origins due to the lack of reliable evidence due to oral traditions in the Indian subcontinent instead of written documentation. However, India had a robust guild system until the arrival of colonial powers that predated the common era. It was known for its highly developed knowledge of mathematics, shipbuilding techniques, and skilled artisans in the ancient world.
In puzzle nomenclature, burrs are assemblies of interlocking notched sticks. They are traditionally square wooden blocks. Reasonably, it must have evolved over thousands of years of building activity. Wooden toys have been a part of India's craft landscape since the beginning of the civilizations. We can only speculate, of all three-dimensional puzzles, the burrs are certainly the easiest to make and probably the earliest to have become popular.
To give credit where it is most due, the fascinating world of geometrical dissections, in general, is Greek in origin. The oldest known mechanical puzzle came from Greece and appeared in the 3rd century BC. The game consists of a square divided into 14 parts, and the aim was to create different shapes from these pieces. A William Jones catalog of 1787 lists few puzzles. In the 1840s, Mr. Crambrook produced a record with over 100 puzzles and held what is believed to be the first-ever puzzle exhibition. In 1893 Professor Hoffmann published his "Puzzles Old and New," listing several hundred puzzles in current production. If we see the entire world's recreations, even that number was minimal.
Patent files are one of our most important historical records on puzzles. There are presently more than 1000 patents of bona fide puzzles filed in the British Patent Office and about the same number in the United States Patent Office. The oldest US patent is dated 1863. If the filing of patents is an accurate indication, then many of the classic designs that are familiar to us today, including various burrs and dissected blocks, date from the late 1800s. Obsessions for puzzles started in 1817 when a Chinese Tangram trend swept both Europe and the USA. Around the 1920s, there is a decline in puzzle interest and patent activity, which coincides with the phenomenal rise in the automobile's popularity. Puzzle interest picks up again after World War II. The Rubik's cube's craze of the 1980s is yet another trend and has been going strong ever since.
There are various types of fascinating and intriguing designs that we see today. Handmade puzzles attribute to their ability to challenge and satisfy their craftsman. Creating any puzzle requires the most careful craft and strict adherence to dimensions. The challenge of creating simple-looking burrs, driven by mathematical accuracy and skill, is one worth admiring when speaking of wooden puzzles. That holds the value of gratification when solved successfully and doesn't disappoint so profoundly, given they are just for fun.
Many of the designs have been produced commercially, and probably many more will be in the future. However, the only economical way to mass-produce well-crafted wooden puzzles with close tolerances is with specialized power woodworking machinery and suitable jigs. Until the mid-19th century, woodworking tools did not come into everyday use. So, one can conclude that most puzzle designs must not be ancient. However, few based on mathematical principles known ages ago have roots going even further back, finally fading away into the unknown or the past.