PUZZLES OLD & NEW
by JERRY SLOCUM & JACK BOTERMANS, 1986
The Chinese Rings Puzzle is an example of a puzzle that is not easy to classify. Most often it is categorized as a disentanglement wire puzzle, especially as far as the classic Chinese Rings is concerned. However, the solution of this puzzle involves a sequence of moves which is very similar to that used when solving the Tower of Hanoi — which is a sequential movement puzzle.
There are many stories and legends about the origin of the Chinese Rings puzzle. (Some people even say that the puzzle about the Chinese Rings Puzzle is not so much how to do it, but what it is and where it came from.) Stewart Cullin [sic], in his book Games of the Orient, records a story that the Chinese Rings puzzle (Lau Kak Ch’ A’) was invented by the famous Chinese hero, Hung Ming (A.D. 181-234). He apparently gave it to his wife when he went to war so she would have something to keep her busy in his absence. The story relates that she forgot her sorrow while trying to solve the puzzle.
The Ingenious Ring Puzzle Book by Ch’ung-En Yü, published in 1958 in Shanghai, describes a prolific family of puzzles. It includes Chinese Rings and 23 other wire puzzles (fish, labyrinth, butterfly, dragonfly, etc.). Ch’ung-En Yü indicates that the Chinese Ring Puzzle was very popular and known to almost every Chinese family during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). It was originally used as a lock, but it was found to be too time-consuming for that purpose.
The puzzle was very popular in Scandinavia, where it was also used as a lock. In Norway it has been known as such for centuries. And at the National Museum of Finland it is exhibited as a traditional folk toy, under the name Prisoner’s Lock. But the Finns are the first to admit its foreign origin; their claim to the lock is based only on its continued popularity in Finland over the last 150 years. Both children and adults find the lock a perfect pastime during the long, cold winter nights in the Land of the Midnight Sun. It is a most ingenious device and can be solved only with a great deal of patience. The story of its origin is a most romantic one. It is said that the Prussian Baron, Frederick Von der Trenck, was in love with the sister of King Frederick the Great. The Prussian King, suspecting the Baron of having only dishonorable intentions, imprisoned him for ten years. It was in prison that the unfortunate Baron is said to have invented the fascinating puzzle.
In France Le Baguenodier — Ring Puzzle — was originally used as an effective device to deter burglars. And in England the lock was known at least as early as the 18th century, under the name Chinese Rings. In Italy, it acquired the name ‘Cardans Rings’, after the outstanding Italian mathematician Geronimo Cardan, who described it in 1550. In Venice it was called Il Sigillium Salomonis, or Sigillo Salamone, which means the Seal of Salomon. Yet another name for the puzzle was ‘The Delay Guest Instrument’, given to it in Korea.
However, it was not until L. Gros wrote the Theorie du Baguenodier, in 1872, that the theory of the solution was understood. (If 64 steps in removing the rings can be performed in one minute, 10 rings can be taken off in less than eight minutes. At the same rate it would take 582 10-hour days to remove 25 rings and 55 billion years to take off 60 rings.)
An astonishing number of modern puzzles is based on the Chinese Rings principle. In contemporary Japan there is a great variety of ring puzzles, which are known as chiye no wa, or ‘rings of ingenuity’. Other interesting modern variations of the Ring Puzzle include the Brain puzzle.