Saturday, 9 June 2012

Elephant No. 251: Dexterity Puzzle

While sorting out a few things yesterday, I came across a small plastic dexterity puzzle, and wondered if I could make one. I've never been very good at solving these little puzzles, but I've always liked them, and it didn't look like a very complicated concept.

Dexterity puzzles—also known as palm puzzles, jiggle puzzles and ball bearing puzzles—may be the oldest form of puzzle in the world. An artifact resembling a maze form of dexterity puzzle was found at Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley, and dates to about 2500 B.C.

In more modern times, dexterity puzzles have been produced since at least the 1880s. A dexterity puzzle known as "Pigs in Clover", produced in 1889, is considered the earliest modern dexterity puzzle. When it was introduced, Pigs in Clover caused something of a craze, even showing up in political cartoons of the time. Dexterity puzzles enjoyed a resurgence in popularity during the 1930s, and have been widely produced ever since.

Original version of Pigs in Clover. The idea is to get all four balls/pigs into the centre.
Invented by Charles M. Crandall, 1889
Collection of the Lilly Library, Bloomington, Indiana, U.S.A.

The idea behind a dexterity puzzle is to run balls through a maze, or nestle them in depressions scattered across a picture. The printed design for the latter includes logical places for the ball bearings to rest, and sometimes instructions for use. Although most dexterity puzzles are small enough to fit easily in a child's hand, some are slightly larger. Complicated maze puzzles can be as large as tabletops, with special handles for tilting the playing surface.

An unusual dexterity puzzle with egg-shaped balls.

Most dexterity puzzles will use a single size of ball bearing. Some, however, involve more than one size, with instructions for fitting the different sizes into specific spaces on the playing surface. Over the years, the balls have been made of clay, lead shot, steel ball bearings and plastic. At one time, even mercury was used, for its tendency to bead.

Designs could either be elaborate or simple, and were made on printed cardstock, wood, plastic, and even embossed tin, as in the example below. Dexterity puzzles have become highly collectible in recent years, with antique versions selling for $150 or more.

Antique dexterity puzzle.

For today's elephant, I decided to use a circular tin container with a glass lid. These are relatively easy to come by, and are usually called "watchmaker's cases". They come in various sizes, but I chose the 70 mm (2.75 inches) size, which was the largest I could find. You could also use a deep picture frame or shadow box. The main thing is that the playing surface be far enough away from the glass to allow the balls to roll easily—but perhaps not so far away that they bounce a lot.

Because the watchmaker's case is deeper than I need, I cut two circles of foamcore to line the bottom. I used black because it's what I had in scrap form.

At first, I thought I might like to have the holes showing as black, then I changed my mind, so I cut a circle of bristol board to lie on top of the foamcoare. For all of these, I used the bottom part of the case to make a template, then cut just inside the line to make sure they would fit.

For the playing board, I sketched a design on a piece of artist-quality bristol board. I thought about the ball bearings when I was drawing it, trying to figure out the best places for the ball bearings to rest.

I outlined it with a black pigment liner, then heat-set it with a hairdryer so that I could paint it without the outlines running.

To finish the design, I painted it with cake watercolours.

To make the holes, I used a tapestry needle. To ensure that the holes were even and round, I poked the needle through all the way to the end, then twirled the end around in the hole. I was originally going to use a 0.3 cm (1/8 inch) hole punch, but thought the holes would be too big for a puzzle this size. You want holes that are small enough to hold a small ball bearing without it falling through, and large enough to encourage the ball bearing to stay where it rolls.

Instead of ball bearings, I decided to use gold dragees—the kind you use on cakes and cookies. I had a bottle of these, so I tipped some out, choosing the ones that were most uniformly round and also the smallest. If you wanted something even smaller, you could also use mustard seed, which comes in both brown and yellow. The main idea is that it be round enough to roll easily.

I placed the dragees on the holes to make sure the holes were spaced nicely, and that I had the right number of dragees.

The final step was putting on the glass cover. Since the covers on these cases have a tight fit, I didn't think I needed to glue or tape the lid, but you could if you wanted.

This took me about an hour in total, including painting time. I'm pretty pleased with the final piece because, although I really didn't know what I was doing, it turned out quite well. It even works. Now if I could only manage to make all the little balls stay where I want them.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Sometimes Nature is just plain creepy. Although I like butterflies in my garden, I don't think I'd like to be in the midst of a swarm like the one below.

The African snout butterfly (Libythea labdaca) travels the continent each year in massive migratory swarms of up to a billion butterflies. Travelling south in the spring and north in the fall, the African snout butterfly can completely blot out the Sun and decimate foliage.

African snout butterfly (Lybithia labdaca), Boma, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2007.
Photo: Akito Y. Kawahara

When they swarm elephants, snout butterflies are primarily seeking the salt in the dried sweat on an elephant's skin. If I were an elephant, I'd be trumpeting madly. And fleeing.

African snout butterflies swarm a forest elephant, Central African Republic.
Photo: Michael Fay/National Geographic Stock

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

No comments:

Post a Comment