May 18, 2010

Puzzles at the Museum of Science

A few months ago, when visiting the Museum of Science in Boston on a Saturday, I encountered an area of the museum where folks were playing with mechanical puzzles. Needless to say, I was delighted and stuck around until the museum closed. Last weekend, I made another visit and did a better job of documenting it!

The puzzle exhibit has been run by a volunteer named Barry Kort for over 20 years! Every Saturday he brings in an assortment of puzzles from his collection and sets them out on a bar with stools for folks to play with. This picture is from 10 years ago so things look a bit different, I didn't think to take my own.

Barry brings sturdy puzzles that can take the abuse of thousands of folks beating upon them. He has a variety of different types from assembly, to disassembly, interlocking, hidden mechanism, and disentanglement.

The first one that struck my interest was this metal disassembly puzzle. I'm not sure of the name of it, but I'm guessing it was something from Bits and Pieces a long time ago. [UPDATE: This is Prison Block from Bits and Pieces.]

It consists of a rectangular black piece with a rotating purple knob on the top. The black piece is seemingly too large to fit through the hole in the silver base. The puzzle is to remove it.

I was quickly drawn to this one because it looked so simple: it made me curious what the solution could be. It took me about 15 minutes to figure it out. I would say that it is easy/moderately difficult to puzzlers, but might prove pretty tricky for a non-puzzler. The solution is based on a common principle in hidden mechanism puzzles.

The next one I tried out was Arrow Case (a.k.a. Packing Arrows) from Bits and Pieces. It is a design by the prolific designer of tray packing puzzles, Dai Nagata. This design won a first place award in the 2001 Puzzle Design Competition at IPP21.

The construction and finish is quite nice, though this copy was quite worn. The pieces had a nice weight to them.

I thought this one was going to take me a while, since frequently the solution to these types of puzzles is quite un-intuitive. However, this one was pretty logical. I think it took me about 5 minutes to  figure it out. Overall, a nice little puzzle!

Barry had a few of this type of puzzle: I tried Houses and Factories next. It is a design by Dick Hess that was also produced by Bits and Pieces.

In this one, they give you a little spot to store the last piece, which I liked. Similar to Packing Arrows, the pieces had a nice weight and finish to them.

Of course, the idea is to get all of the pieces into the square frame on the left of the tray. There are two identical houses and three factories. Two of the factories have a smokestack on the right, and one has it on the left.

It would be quite easy without the chimneys and smokestacks: they have a tendency to get in the way. At one point, I found a solution that required flipping one of the pieces, but that was illegal because the pieces are only decorated on one side. After a few more minutes of fiddling, I figured it out. This one took me about 10 minutes, a bit longer than the other one. It is a nice little puzzle!

Next up, I took a crack at Oskar's Blocks, a design by Oskar van Deventer. Somebody had taken it apart and wasn't able to get it back together, so I decided to take a crack at it since disassembly is pretty trivial.

It has a nice kind of pinwheel shape when you get it together. It took me about a minute to get back together, but that's probably due to my experience with this type of puzzle. It is a nice little design, though a bit simple for my taste.

A woman had been working on Free the Key for a while and was able to get the disk off, but didn't have the patience to get it back to the beginning, so I decided to give it a try.

This one took a bit of fiddling, but eventually I got it back to the start after a few minutes. For the sake of completeness I took it off and put it back on again.

Like many other puzzles, you can think of this as a maze. The key is to have a good awareness of what you have tried so you can avoid going in circles or repeatedly running into the same dead end.

Overall, a sturdy little puzzle, but I didn't much care for the finish. It was a bit dull, I would have liked a nice shiny finish for this one, but that's not a big deal. I've seen them new, and they look similar so it wasn't due to wear.

Next up, I tried Satan's Stirrup, the very first original design produced in 1985 by Tucker-Jones House, makers of The Tavern Puzzle® Collection.

This one is a level 4 out of 8, so not too tricky. I think it only took me a minute or so to solve. Not too hard, but it might keep a non-puzzler occupied for a little while. Still, a nice puzzle that will definitely hold up to some abuse.

Alcatraz PuzzleThe one puzzle that completely stumped me during this visit was the classic Alcatraz Puzzle. Believe it or not I don't own it and I have never solved this puzzle, which is quite surprising since hidden mechanism puzzles are one of my favorite types.

I worked on this one for a good 20 minutes, but didn't have much luck. I whacked it, spun it, and shook the hell out of it, but nothing seemed to quite do the trick. I'm thinking I had the right idea, but didn't quite get the technique correct. Oh well, I'll have to revisit this one another day!

One of the coolest things about this exhibit is getting to watch everybody else working on their puzzles. I'm always curious to see how different people approach problems, how much frustration they'll tolerate, and who can figure out what. It seems to really come down to confidence: if folks go into it thinking that they'll fail, the usually won't! Puzzle solving takes the confidence to know that if you keep at it for long enough, eventually you will succeed.

As the museum was about to close in 10 minutes and Barry was starting to pack up things that folks weren't working on, I noticed that Internal Combustion was disassembled and decided to try to put it back together. This type of puzzle is called a framed burr: there are four notched rods that go through the outer frame.

I had done this one before: it is moderately tricky to get it apart, so I kept all the pieces in the correct orientation for easy re-assembly. In this case, the pieces were all scrambled.

Using some logic and trial and error, I was able to figure out the correct locations and orientations for the pieces. Just as they were making the final announcement that folks needed to head out, I slid the last piece into place. Phew! That was pretty exciting! I hate leaving a puzzle unsolved.

Next time, per Barry's request, I'll bring some of the more durable puzzles from my collection. I find it quite unfortunate that a lot of them just sit around unused once I've solved them, so I'd love the chance to see other people enjoy them. Thanks to Barry for a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon!


  1. Brian,

    As always, a great write up! Next trip to Boston I'll have to check this out!

  2. Brian, don't feel too bad about not solving Alcatraz. I failed to get mine open as well. Actually, I bought it at the Science Museum in London, cheap because the ball was missing! It was in the mid-1990s and I remember getting a great sense of achievement with this puzzle, not by solving it, but by tracking down the U.S. patent on the Internet and ordering a copy by post. I was able to find a marble exactly the right size to fit the cage and now it sits in my collection, stumping lots of young puzzlers.
    Best wishes, Richard Gain

  3. Thanks guys! I'll have to revisit Alcatraz sometime soon.

  4. Today at the Museum of Science a visitor mentioned he'd seen this blog post and came by to check out the puzzles for himself. Among the other visitors today was a mathematician who told me he was the Treasurer of the Fibonacci Society.

    Many thanks for promoting the Puzzle Activity at the Boston Museum of Science.

    --Barry Kort

  5. You're welcome, Barry! Hopefully I'll be returning sometime soon and can bring a few of my puzzles.


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