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last updated: 3/23/2009

Puzzles Find Home at Lilly

Puzzle enthusiast and author Jerry Slocum has announced his intention to donate his prized collection of more than 30,000 puzzles and nearly 4,000 puzzle-related books to the Lilly Library. This collection, highly regarded for its variety and scope, is considered to be the world's largest mechanical puzzle collection. About 400 puzzles at a time will be displayed in the refurbished exhibition space named in Slocum's honor. 

IU alumnus Will Shortz, subject of the new documentary "Wordplay" and longtime editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, joined puzzle designers and collectors from around the world to celebrate the donation at an invitation-only reception at the Lilly Library. Approximately 100 guests attended from countries including Russia, Japan, the Czech Republic, France, and the Netherlands.

"This gift culminates a long relationship with Jerry Slocum, and we are honored he chose the Indiana University Libraries to house and display his collection," says Pat Steele, Ruth Lilly Dean of University Libraries. "The collection is an excellent resource for teaching and learning, in part because it's so engaging. The more challenging and complex the puzzles, the more they fascinate and instruct."

Unlike word or jigsaw puzzles, mechanical puzzles are hand-held objects that must be manipulated to achieve a specific goal. The Rubik's cube or tangrams are popular examples.Slocum, who developed a mechanical puzzle classification system adopted worldwide, identifies 10 types of mechanical puzzles, ranging from put-together puzzles to dexterity and disentanglement puzzles.

Most of the puzzles soon to be on view at the Lilly Library are of three types: put-together, take-apart, and interlocking. Quickly dispelling the notion that puzzles are merely child's play, many of the items are hand-carved works of art or masterpieces of such geometric precision that they can be solved only by the most tenacious die-hards. The "impossible" puzzles—a soda bottle pierced by an arrow, for example—seem to defy the laws of physics. Highlights of the collection include intricately carved ivory puzzles from China, tangrams and hand-colored problem cards from France, and thousands of nineteenth-century puzzles from England and America.

The exhibition features a Japanese trick-box that requires 20 moves to open, made even more challenging by the elaborate wooden inlay that disguises its functional parts. An eighteenth-century French padlock, the size of a hardback novel, apparently has no keyhole. Created by an apprentice locksmith to demonstrate his mastery, its hidden mechanisms once helped night watchmen by baffling would-be intruders. A fragile reproduction of a tenth-century Chinese "justice cup" mysteriously drains itself of liquid if overfilled.

Visitors to the Lilly Library will be able to test their wits by trying to reassemble or disentangle replicas of puzzles that have entertained for centuries. Many of the interlocking puzzles, with strong geometric shapes and repeating patterns, are based purely on mathematical principles.

"Like usic, math is a universal language," says exhibit coordinator Jillian Hinchliffe."These puzzles have a cross-cultural appeal.Not only does Jerry collect puzzles of different types and materials, but they're also from all over the world."



The Jerry Slocum Puzzle Room features custom-made exhibition cases as well as display tables commissioned especially for the room.Top puzzle designers competed to design the tables which, with concealed drawers and mechanisms, are puzzles themselves. Winning entries came from Oregon and Japan.

Plans are under way to create a searchable database providing information on all 30,000 puzzles, including some with digital images and animation.

The collection will serve as a resource to professors and students studying education, mathematics, developmental psychology, history of science, and other disciplines.

The Lilly Library, IU's library for rare books and manuscripts, houses more than 400,000 books, 130,000 pieces of sheet music, and approximately 7 million manuscripts.It is one of 18 libraries on campus administered by the IUB Libraries to help students and faculty succeed in their academic goals.

Explore the exhibition's companion Web site, where you can browse the database of puzzles, learn about the types of puzzles, and view animation showing solutions to some of the popular "put-together" puzzles.

View the puzzle database and animation at

last updated: 3/23/2009