Chronological History of Puzzles: A Timeline

You’re going to love this, below we have a chronological timeline of puzzles – a transcending flow through the ages: from around 2300 – all the way through to modern times.

If there are any we have missed, any ultra popular puzzles you would like added - please let us know we would like to include them and keep an ever growing comprehensive list:

2300 BC: Before modern incarnations of the the varieties of puzzles we sell – labyrinth drawings were popular around the world, particularly in Ancient Greece and Egypt. These kinds of images hold religious and spiritual significance in ancient cultures.

One of the most famous labyrinths was the Ancient Cretan Labyrinth, supposedly built by King Minos of Greece for his Minotaur (A Half Man Half Bull). The labyrinth did actually exist, but the tale of the Minotaur if of course only a popular legend.

2250BC: The first tactile puzzle came some 500 years after the first labyrinth drawings, dating back to a whopping 2550-2250 BC. Appearing initially in the Indus Valley and Mohenjo-Daro, one of the first known human civilizations -  there appeared dexterity puzzle of sorts, similar to the famous Pigs in Clover, puzzle. This seems the first physical manifestation of the labyrinths popular in Ancient Greece and Egypt.

1,000BC: Bottom-Fill Vessel: Chinese Puzzles, a fantastic puzzle website, does an excellent video on this variety. These bottom fill puzzles were first found in Cyprus around 1,000BC with decorative versions found in China around 900AD.

A bottom-filling pot has no lid and is filled through a hole in the bottom. When the puzzle is turned, surprisingly,  there is no leak. Another version of this is the fairness cup which will hold a moderate amount of liquid, but when filled to the top everything will leak out.


220BC: Not really a puzzle, but certainly a trick: The resonance bowl can be traced back to the Ancient Tao tradition in China during the Han Dynasty (220BC – AD 9).

It is referred to by many names such as the “Bronze Dancing Water Basin” and the “Chinese Spouting Bowl” – Classically made from cast bronze in a foundry, these were made in early Tao Temples for the purpose of meditation and were also utilized as a toy by the upper class. It is said to stimulate your mind, maximize your muscles and offer much happiness to those who use it.

200 BC: Rome – Secret compartment rings: lick lockets, but for rings, often with secret compartments that can be maneuvered with a lever or clasp.

395 AD: Stomachion is a 14 piece dissection puzzle: Similar in style to a Tangram Puzzle.The puzzle is referenced as the “Loculus of Archimedes”. Or the “Syntemachion” in Latin texts. In November 2003 Bill Cutler found these to posses 536 possible distinct arrangement of the pieces to make a square.

The Roman Trick Lock, is carbon dated at around 100-400AD – it opens like a locket with secret pull lever. It appears as if trick locks of various styles were popular around around Ancient Rome, with a combination lock being excavated from a Roman period tomb in Athens. Attached to the excavated puzzles was a small box, which featured several dials instead of keyholes - which would have been very sophisticated for the era.

Muslim engineer Al-Jazari first documented a combination lock in his book “The Book of Knowledge and Mechanical devices” – dated from around 1206.

1400: Puzzle Vessels or Puzzle jugs, are thought of as one of the oldest mechanical puzzles. The trick involved drinking from the jug AND not spilling its contents.

These puzzles have a series of holes that leak if you drink normally. The trick is to find the tube which runs into the jug, cover the holes running across it and suck the contents out like a straw.

1500: Cardan’s Chinese rings, made by Geronimo Cardan. Although this is meant to be the earliest known disentanglement puzzle – other references date back to a puzzle in the Chinese Sung Dynasty – where the original was made by Hung Ming, a famous Chinese Hero.

Commonly referred to as the Baguenaudier is a disentanglement puzzle featuring a loop which must be disentangled from sequence of rings on interlinked pillars. 

1636: Germany, Solomon’s Seal Puzzle is another disentanglement puzzle. Fred Gunfeld’s, Games of the World, calls it the ‘African puzzle’ – however there is no evidence of the puzzles being from Africa, it was featured in early modern Europ in 1636 Germany, 1725 France and 1747 Italy.

1698– Burr Puzzles:  One of the world's most popular puzzle games. The origin of a Burr Puzzles is unknown, but it appears on record in as early as 1698, when it was illustrated on the title page of Chambers’ Cyclopaedia.

The Large Devil’s Hoof is the earliest known example of this puzzle. Consisting of 24 wood pieces, we have a similar puzzle here, termed the double lock- a- ball.

The popular 6 piece burr puzzles, also called the devils hoof was also recorded around this time, but it was first patented in the US in 1915.

1699 – Spanish Puzzle Knife – The first half of the seventeenth century saw the rise in popularity of folding knives. Puzzle knives were a variation of a popular product of the time, each puzzle had its own individual opening mechanism, which was usually based around rivets.

Some were made with combination locks, such as numbered dials – as seen above. These knife puzzles are often extravagantly decorated and engraved. 

1743 – Wisdom Plates are an early version of the classic Tangram puzzle found in Japan under the name: Sei Shona-gon Chie No-Ita – the puzzle conquered the world in the early 19th century after being given as a gift to Captain M. Donaldson during a visit to Canton.

The puzzle was originally popularized by the “Eighth Book of Tan” – which claimed the puzzle was originally crafted an Ancient Chinese god - an unlikely but fun story indeed.

1790 – Sliding Puzzles/Dissection Puzzles; found a renaissance in the late 18th century. Like the Game of Jags and Hooks and similar pentomino style puzzles.

1760: Jigsaw Puzzle – Dating back to 1760, when European map makers pasted maps and cut them into small pieces, the have been a household favourite ever since and in fact, Jigsaw puzzles are still used in the American school system to tech children about geography to this day.

The eighteenth century inventors of jigsaw puzzles would be amazed to see the transformations of the last 230 years. Children’s puzzles have moved from lessons to entertainment. By around 1910, there was more demand for adults jigsaw puzzles, which progressed into a full blown craze. Initially the puzzles were only for the “uppercrust" of European society and nobility – a far fetch from what we know today.

1760; Netherlands: Secret compartments in everything! Classically made from pieces of household furniture, they were designed to help protect your house from thieves, every dresser had a secret compartment. 

1800s: Puzzle Boxes, Japan – In a bit of history, the Japanese Puzzle Box or Himitsu-Bako originated from the Odawara district of Kanagawa, Japan. The exact date isn’t known, but they started to appear in the late Edo period. This stunning range of puzzles were beautifully crafted by Japanese artisans for 3 generations in the region. The allure of Japanese Boxes is not just in their entertaining nature but it is also a treasured as a traditional Japanese art form. The hypnotic color patterns are created by using a combination of natural colored woods.

1883: Tower of Hanoi: Designed by a French mathematician specializing in the theory of numbers. The puzzle has 3 pegs and a number of disks increasing in size – the problem is you cannot place a smaller disc under a larger one. This puzzles was popularized on screen with Planet of the Apes and Star Wars and Doctor Who all featuring it.

1865: Pyramid Puzzle: originally crafted on the pastoral frontier countryside, by pioneer fathers as toys for their children. Pyramid puzzle represent an important piece of American history, an untainted, simple aesthetic, cut by axe from tree stubs and arbitrary branches.

1894: Klotski Puzzle: First patented by Henry Walton, is a popular form of sliding puzzle. Traditionally you are trying to move the largest block from the top to the bottom: we have several version – Setting Sun, Soccer Game x 2 and Baseball. The Huarong Dao is the Chinese version of the game which has interesting fable attached to it – you can read more about that here.

1930: Kumiki puzzles have their roots in Japanese minimalism, first used in Japanese antiquity. Japanese Kumiki Puzzles are based on a style of wooden house building craft that allows houses to stay stable in extreme weather and earthquakes. The puzzles were taken on by Japanese woodworkers. Tsunetaro Yamanaka, was the first craftsman to apply this philosophy in the design of puzzles – they became famed for their clever interpretation of objects, animal and cars before branching out to abstract shapes.

1933 – The Soma Cube is a solid dissection puzzle invented by Piet Hein in 1933 during a lecture on quantum mechanics. There are 7 pieces made out of unit cubes can be assembled into a 3 x 3 x 3 cube. The pieces can be used to also make other shapes.

1974: The Rubik’s cube is a 3-d combination puzzles invented in 1974 by Erno Rubik. It is widely considered not only the bestselling puzzle of all time, but also the bestselling toy – with around 400 million sales worldwide. Such was its influence on popular culture that a culture of “cubers” has arisen who test themselves against the clock.

1981: Pyraminx - Although first conceived by Uwe Meffert in 1970 it was not put in production until 1981. Meffert frequently mentions that the pyramminx would have never have been made if it had not been for the Rubik cube which is of a similar rotating style.

And there we have it – a back to front timeline of all things puzzles. If we are missing any let us know.

March 07, 2016 by Sean Allan
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