A picture of frustration: Sam Loyd’s 15 puzzle

David Richeson: Division by Zero

Mathematics, whether it be calculus homework or cutting-edge research, can be very challenging. Haven’t we all faced a problem that we struggle with for hours or days? The answer, we know, or we hope, is within our grasp—but we just can’t reach it. In moments like that I always think of this picture from the famous puzzle-master Sam Loyd (who I wrote about once before). It can be found in Sam Loyd’s 1914 Cyclopedia of Puzzles (scans of the entire book are available online).

Isn’t it great? The picture shows a farmer neglecting his fields while trying in vain to solve the famous sliding block puzzle (also known as the 15-puzzle). In this case, the puzzle is set to Loyd’s starting configuration—with the 14 and 15 switched. Loyd offered $1000 for the first correct solution of this puzzle. He wrote:

People became infatuated with the puzzle and ludicrous tales…

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