During ancient times, we can imagine that children all over the world passed the time by assembling pieces of broken crockery, jigsaw fashion, to play or for repair. However, it was not until the 18th century that the true concept of the jigsaw puzzle as we know it today came to be.
There are several stories that point to the origin of jigsaw puzzles, but the clearest seems to be that of John Spilsbury, a British cartographer and engraver. In approximately 1760, Spilsbury, of London, is credited with inventing the concept of the jigsaw puzzle. Using one of his own maps, he mounted it on a thin piece of hardwood and used a flexible handsaw known as a marquetry saw to cut it. The marquetry saw’s extra fine blade enabled Spilsbury to cut around the outlines of the countries. It is thought that Spilsbury used the jigsaw puzzle as a teaching tool to help children learn about world geography. Other credible historical accounts note that the French and the Dutch both laid claim to the invention of the jigsaw puzzle. At the time, these puzzles were quite expensive – in fact, they were used to help educate upper class and royal children about almost any topic. It was not too long after the debut of the jigsaw puzzle that other entrepreneurs entered the market with similar products. Though images remained popular, there was also a brisk market in stories both for fun and as a learning aid.
While original ‘jigsaw’ style puzzles have been noted in other cultures, they may have been more accidentally created than planned. Also of course, wooden shape puzzles have been known in many cultures for a number of centuries. However, Spilsbury is credited with the concept of gluing paper to wood and then cutting through both materials. While mahogany wood was originally in use, by the end of the century, plywood came into fashion as the medium to affix the paper picture. With illustrations glued or painted on the front of the wood, cutting guides were penciled in on the back. These pencil tracings can still be found on some of the vintage puzzles. Since this time, jigsaw puzzles have come to be made on cardboard and are now machine stamped in order to cut the picture into tiles. Recently, there has been a resurgence in creating toddler and children’s’ puzzles using wood and paint.
These days there are only a few manufacturers of quality puzzles as the world moves to free online jigsaw puzzles on the internet. Among the leaders in the manufacturing of jigsaw puzzles is the company Ravensburger. Named after a German town, Ravensburg, the company began its present focus in 1911 when the then-owner began to change course from strictly publishing to games. Over the years, the company has found its niche in all different kinds of puzzles, including speciality puzzles.
Puzzles of the Future
Today, creating jigsaw puzzles is a highly technical process. The standard construction calls for 2 mm pressed fiberboard, with a glossy picture glued to one side. The puzzle is die cut from the picture side, giving the front of the puzzle pieces a pleasing rounded effect. Over the centuries, the range of puzzle complexity has also broadened. Piece size and shape, picture complexity, and number of pieces informally rate puzzles. Adult puzzles range from very easy (~100 pieces, average picture) to very, very difficult. Currently, the informal world record holder for the most difficult puzzle is Ravensburger’s ‘Krypt’, a photo of a featureless silver sphere inside a rectangle. All the tiles are different from one another; the picture is provided merely as advertising. Ravensburger is also the titleholder for the world’s largest available puzzle at 32,256 pieces. It features 32 artistic works and measures 544 cm by 192 cm when assembled. Use of different backing materials such as foam can give a jigsaw puzzle the structural strength needed for it to stand as a 3D structure, something that Ravensburger has explored in their 3D Puzzle line. So far, there have been a number of famous buildings and spheres available to assemble. There are also personalized puzzles that can be made with virtually any picture on the front. For the avid puzzler, there are a number of free online jigsaw puzzles, like Jigsaw Planet, that are great quality. Additionally, free online jigsaw puzzle sites contain a number of features that are especially appealing to the gamer – puzzles can easily be sorted by topic; the user can then customize the difficulty of their picture choice to their individual skill level by clicking through a few settings.
Throughout the centuries, jigsaw puzzles have evolved from an educational tool to a complex art form to train the minds and entertain those from age 2 to 80. With touch technology and interactive technology becoming more affordable, consumers can only guess as to the next development in jigsaw puzzle technology.