The tangram was the first ever puzzle craze – and it is still going strong.
You may have come across it before. You are shown a shape, and you must arrange seven pieces – five triangles, a square and a rhombus – to make that shape.
In the early nineteenth century, the tangram, of East Asian origin, arrived in the West, where it was an instant hit. Between 1817 and 1818 dozens of tangram books were published in Europe.
The puzzle has remained popular ever since. As each generation has created new designs, the total number of different shapes is now probably in the tens of thousands. For example, here are Princess Leia from Star Wars and Elsa from Frozen.
Both of these patterns (and Donald Trump above) were designed by Doug Nufer, a software developer from Utah, who is surely the world’s most prolific currently active tangram artist. He has designed more than 1600 shapes, many of them based on celebrities, movie characters and sports.
“I am amazed at how many shapes can be made using just seven pieces,” says Nufer.
Here are the solutions (coloured appropriately). Note that each shape must use all the seven pieces, and no pieces can overlap.
Today’s challenges are twofold: first, solve the tangrams in this column below. They are all new ones created by Nufer.
Second: design a tangram yourself. Make it based on something contemporary. Be creative! Can you improve on Nufer’s Trump? A smartphone? A vegan burger? Brexit? Email or tweet me @alexbellos and I’ll put up a gallery of images. I’ll also send a copy of one of my puzzle books to the one I like the best.
If you don’t have a tangram set at home, you can:
Here’s another easy one: Quidditch.
The next one is harder, since it is not instantly clear which shapes go where. The hipster:
“I tangram nearly every day. Sometimes only briefly. I have several tangram sets to tinker with. I’ve made some out of foam, wood, and steel. A friend gave me one made out of mother of pearl. When I’m working on a project, I can spend 2-3 hours or more per night for weeks on end. Some designs come quickly and almost by accident. Others can take several hours of manipulation before I’m satisfied.”
Here’s the Sydney Opera House:
Even limited by square heads and angular bodies, the human shapes can really convey movement and character, such as this footballer:
Wolf (rewilded, of course):
And finally, the Washington Monument:
I’ll post the answer to these puzzles and a gallery of tangrams in a later post.
Thanks to Philipp Legner at Mathigon. It is an amazing, free interactive textbook for children and adults wanting to explore mathematical ideas.
I set a puzzle here every two weeks on a Monday. I’m always on the look-out for great puzzles. If you would like to suggest one, email me.
I’m the author of Football School, a book series for 7 to 12 year olds that opens up the curriculum through football. Football School Star Players is out next week.
Together with the Guardian, Football School has just launched the Young Sportswriter of the Year competition. Open to all 7 to 12 year olds in the UK, write a 600 word story about sport and you could win a trip to a Premier League game and your story published by the Guardian. For more details click here. Please spread the word among teachers and parents. The last date for entries is May 19.