Wooden tangram set

An ancient Chinese moving piece puzzle, consisting of 7 geometric shapes. Traditional tangrams were made from stone, bone, clay or other easy to get materials. Nowadays they can be made from plastic, wood or other modern materials. The word "tangram" is built from TANG + GRAM. The word "Tangram" was first used by Thomas Hill, later President of Harvard, in his book Geometrical Puzzle for the Youth in 1848.

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.

The tangram is very possibly originated from the yanjitu (燕几圖) furniture set during the Song Dynasty. According to historical Chinese records, the furniture set was originally a set of 6 rectangular tables. Later, an additional triangular table was added to the set, and people can arrange the 7 tables into a big square table. There is some variation to such furniture set during the Ming Dynasty, and later became a set of wooden blocks for playing.

Another legend states that a servant of a Chinese emperor was carrying a ceramic tile, extremely expensive and extremely fragile. The servant tripped, shattering the tile. In a panic, the servant desperately tried to reassemble the tile into a square, but could not. He did realize, however, that many other shapes could be formed from the pieces.

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.

While the tangram is often said to be ancient, its existence in the Western world has only been verified as far back as 1800. Tangrams were brought to America by Chinese and American ships during the first part of the nineteenth century. The earliest example known is made of ivory in a silk box and was given to the son of an American ship owner in 1802.

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.

The author and mathematician Lewis Carroll reputedly was a great enthusiast of tangrams and possessed a Chinese book with tissue-thin leaves containing 323 tangram designs. Napoleon owned a Tangram set and Chinese problem and solution books while he was imprisoned on the island of St. Helena. 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. 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. Many of 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.

It 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. Simple really, which is one of its attractions. The classic rules are as follows: You must use all seven tans, they must lay flat, they must touch and none may overlap. But many fans break away from the “rules”, or even use 2 sets, meaning 14 pieces.