The Stomachion - The Oldest Puzzle In The World
You’re familiar with Tangrams and Pentomino puzzles, but did you know that we have Archimedes to thank for them?
Archimedes was a Greek mathematician born in 287BC. He was the one who was sat in the bath and had his eureka moment. His contributions to the world of mathematics were immense. He calculated Pi, he invented a screw to move water uphill and many other amazing inventions. He also created the Stomachio. This was first written about in a document called the Achimedes Palimpset.
It’s what we know today as a dissection puzzle and is 14 piece of wood, normally, set inside a square. The challenge is to try and fit all 14 pieces back into the square after you’ve removed them. And, just like a Tangram, the pieces could be used to create shapes of animals and birds.
It turns out that the world is lucky to know about the Stomachion at all - it was nearly lost forever. The first written description of it was in the 10th Century, and even that was copied from work Archimedes completed earlier. Around the 13th Century the manuscript was repurposed as a prayer book - this was common practise in those times as parchment was incredibly expensive. The parchment is now referred to as the Archimedes Palimpset, which means it was a manuscript resued by covering them with new text.
Johan Ludvig Heiburg, a scholar of Archimedes was researching the hidden text in 1906. However, the original had gone missing from the Constantinople library which was housing it. How exactly it was found again remains something of a puzzle in itself. However, it was found, by Marie Louise Sereix, a businessman who claims he purchased it from a monk. While it was gone, an unknown forger had placed layers of gold leaf over the parchment - almost ruining the underlying text because it created mould. Sirieix’s daughter sold the Palimpset for $2 million at auction in 1998. A tech entrepreneur bought it anonymously and donated it to the Baltimore-based Walters Art Museum in order for it to be properly analyzed using modern equipment. New imaging methodology made it finally possible to read the original text in its entirety, part of which was the only known original Archimedes write up of the Stomachion.
Let’s Do The Math
When you try and solve the Stomachion, you’ll soon discover that that there is more than one way to solve the puzzle. Maths experts tried to start working out how many possible answers there are to the problem. Joe Marasco offered a fairly meagre prize of just $100 to anyone who could answer that question. Bill Cutler won the prize as he had used a computer to work out there are 536 ways to solve the problem.
No one knows if Archimedes ever even considered the variety of possible answers, as there is nothing about that in the Archimedes Palimpset. He almost certainly realised there were many differing ways to solve it, but unfortunately he didn’t have the access to modern computing to aid in that calculation.
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