HISTORY, USES AND RULES
The invention of the tangram puzzle is unrecorded in history. The earliest known Chinese book is dated 1813 but the puzzle was very old by then. One reason for this could be that in China, its country of origin, at the time it was considered a game for women and children. This would have made it unworthy of “serious” study and unlikely to be written about. Different times, different ways of thinking. Glad that’s changing.
The roots of the word Tangram are also shrouded in time, with a number of possible explanations. The one I like best involves the Tanka people. These river people of China were great traders who were involved in the opium trade. The western sailors they traded opium with likely played with the puzzle when they visited their Tanka girlfriends. The story I believe is that it comes from the obsolete English word “tramgram” meaning puzzle or trinket. You can learn a bit more at the Online Etymology Dictionary. A fun place, by the way, if you like words.
Tangrams enjoyed a surge of interest during the 19th century in Europe and America. This, no doubt, was due to the opening up of trade with China and the aforementioned sailors bringing home new found amusements. “The Chinese Puzzle” spawned a flood of books and picture card sets. Some quite elaborate Chinese examples exist with pieces carved from and/or inlaid with ivory, jade and other fine materials. Others were cheap, locally made copies in wood or fired clay. Some books blindly reproduced previous mistakes in the patterns. Some things never change.
In 1903, Sam Loyd wrote his great spoof of tangram history,The Eighth Book Of Tan.He had many people convinced that the game was invented 4000 years ago by the god Tan. According to Loyd, the first 7 Books Of Tan were linked with many famous people and historical events. All very convincing and it made Sam a lot of money. Later examination showed it to be a colossal joke. The book did catalog over 600 patterns, many by Loyd himself. He also introduced (along with H. F. Dudeney) the idea of paradoxes
Fu Tsiang Wang and Chuan-chin Hsiung mathematically proved in 1942 the existance of a finite set of patterns referred to as “convex”. In this context, it means that there are no indentations along the outside edge and an inside line from any edge to any other edge will not go outside the edges of the design. There are only 13 silhouettes that qualify. Other finite sets may exist.
Tangrams continue to entertain and frustrate now days. The puzzle attracts people on a number of levels. It’s simplicity makes it accessible to a broad spectrum of people. The figures spark visually inclined people though their form, liveliness and striking simplicity. The designs are adaptable to quilting, applique and many other artistic or craft projects. Storytellers can weave a tale with many characters and objects using only the seven tans.
The puzzle interests the math inclined with the geometry and ratios of the pieces. You find them used in classrooms around the world to teach basic math ideas in an interesting way. The Dr. Schaffer & Mr. Stern Dance Ensemble (MathDance) has taken it a step further with a dance using over-sized tangram pieces! They’ve even been used as the model for a designer table by Massimo Morozzi and a wonderful set of shelves by Daniele Lago
It is one of the great puzzles, appealing to young and old, the serious and the carefree. Follow our instructions to make your own set and enjoy all it has to offer.
Simple really, which is one of it’s many attractions. The classic rules are as follows: You must use all seven tans, they must lay flat, they must touch and none may overlap. Feel free to break away from the “rules”, though. See this puzzle shapes page for some wonderful “unruly” figures. Attempt the patterns you find here, race with other people to complete a figure or play with the pieces to come up with your own creations. Enjoy!
DoTangrams - Mikael put together an on-line version for us to try out. I had fun playing there and you'll see my first three there. See what you can add to his collection and inspire him to take the project further.