Ask anyone who knows the history of puzzles, “Who was the greatest puzzle inventor of all time?,” and the answer will probably be Sam Loyd. The American puzzle genius lived from 1841 to 1911. His output was so prodigious — in quantity, quality, variety, and sheer inventiveness — that he is widely known as “the Puzzle King.” Every maker of puzzles who has followed him, including England’s Henry Ernest Dudeney and Japan’s Kobon Fujimura and Nob Yoshigahara, has owed a large debt to Loyd.
Born on January 30, 1841, in Philadelphia, Samuel Loyd showed an early aptitude for chess — but more as a designer of problems than as a player. He published his first chess problem at the age of 14 and became problem editor for the prestigious Chess Monthly when he was 16. By his late teens he was recognized as one of the most brilliant creators of chess problems in the country.
Loyd’s career in puzzles started around 1868, when he invented the classic “Trick Donkeys,” the first of his many puzzles on advertising cards. The card was to be cut into three pieces — two of them with donkeys and a third piece with a pair of jockeys. The object was to place the jockeys on the donkeys so the jockeys appear to be riding. The puzzle looks maddeningly simple, but almost no one ever does it without seeing the solution. The puzzle was distributed by the millions — including by the great circus impresario P. T. Barnum. It is said to have made Loyd wealthy.
In the 1890s, as cards declined as an advertising medium and mass-circulation newspapers and magazines appeared, Loyd turned his attention to these media. His original puzzles were published in newspapers like the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, New York Journal, San Francisco Examiner, Boston Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Record-Herald, and dozens of others. His most widely-read column ran monthly in the Woman’s Home Companion magazine from 1904 until his death in 1911.
Many of these puzzles are still solved today. For example, almost everyone has seen the nine-dot puzzle:
. . .
. . .
. . .
… in which the object is to link all nine dots using the fewest straight lines without lifting the pencil from the paper. This was first published by Loyd in 1903. The puzzle has a simple solution, using four straight lines [shown tk-where], which almost nobody finds on the first try. It was Loyd’s ingenious solution that gave rise to the modern phrase “thinking outside the box.”
The above publications formed the basis of Loyd’s posthumous Cyclopedia of 5,000 Puzzles, Tricks and Conundrums (1914), which Martin Gardner — the master of recreational mathematics — once described as “the largest, most exciting collection of puzzles ever assembled between the covers of one volume.”
Sam Loyd was an inspiration to me personally, when I was growing up and first contemplating a puzzle career. I bought two paperback collections of Loyd’s puzzles, edited by Gardner, and was entranced by their elegance, the humor of the instructions, and the lure of the illustrations. Loyd had a way of taking a novel mathematical principle and dressing it up with a story, often accompanying it with a picture, and producing something that was both challenging to solve and yet broadly appealing. It’s very hard to do both things at once.
Will Shortz is the crossword editor of The New York Times, the founder of the World Puzzle Championship, and the author/editor of more than 500 puzzle books. He has been collecting original copies of Sam Loyd puzzles for more than 30 years.