Archimedes' Square, "Stomachion":
The world's oldest known puzzle

 



Archimedes lived from 287 to 212 B.C., a generation after Euclid. He was a great inventor (remember "Eureka"?) and is credited with creating, 2200 years ago, the first puzzle ever known. Like all of his other ingenious inventions, his puzzle is brilliant and challenging even today. The most interesting fact is that his puzzle was discovered accidentally, in 1846, but lay in obscurity for over a century.

In October 1998, a manuscript containing some of Archimedes's works, known to scholars as the Archimedes Palimpsest, resurfaced and was sold in New York for two million dollars.

This exciting artifact is a unique source of evidence for Archimedes' thought and contains the oldest, by far, surviving description of Archimedes' work in the original Greek. Among its many treasures is the only evidence we have for the treatise known as the Method, in which physics and mathematics are most intimately combined by Archimedes.

Another reason all this is so intriguing is that the Palimpsest is the only (albeit fragmentary) information from the original Greek we have on the dissection puzzle variously called the Loculus of Archimedes, Syntemachion or Loculus Archimedis, the Stomachion or Ostomachion, or simply Archimedes' Square. Here is an illustration, courtesy of Prof. Chris Rorres, University of Pennsylvania, of how each tile has an area that's an integer (whole number):

   

Archimedes' Square consists of 14 polygons of varying sizes and shapes dissected from a 12x12 square grid as shown above. Historical writings have recorded 18 shapes to solve with the pieces that form the square. The other 17 are illustrated below. More have been discovered since then.

We thank Joe Marasco for suggesting this puzzle to us and for supplying many of the research references. It's the crown jewel in our Treasured Oldies collection. Joe also instigated the search for the full solution count and offered a bounty to the first solver. The winner was Bill Cutler in November 2003; he used a computer program he had written for a similar challenge, and it came up with the answer of 536 solutions, the first time this knowledge has been found in over 2200 years. Hurray, Bill! Read more about this story in our journal, The Life of Games.

The classic shapes to make:

Instruction booklet includes historical notes, new figures, and links to major online sources of further information. We make it with a mix of 3 luminous colors, where each color has an equal share of the total area.



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