Andrew Rhoda - Curator of Puzzles
Meet Andrew Rhoda. For the past three years, he’s worked in Indiana University’s Lilly Library doing a job found nowhere else in the world: He’s the library’s dedicated Curator of Puzzles. Rhoda’s rare job title comes with an equally rare set of responsibilities. The Lilly Library holds the Slocum Puzzle Collection, a group of more than 35,000 mechanical puzzles (plus related books and manuscripts) that anyone can come spend some time trying to solve. Rhoda works with Jerry Slocum, the main benefactor for the collection, and other donors who want to give their puzzles to the library. He also spends time answering reference questions about mechanical puzzles (the library is one of the few comprehensive resources in the world), giving presentations, teaching classes, and maintaining the online database for the collection so visitors can pick what they want to try before coming in. “This is the only mechanical puzzle collection in the world that allows open access and free public use, and I am the world’s only Curator of Puzzles,” Rhoda said.
Because the collection is specifically for mechanical puzzles, each puzzle has to fall into a certain set of guidelines. Slocum wrote a book, coauthored with puzzle expert Jack Botermans, called Puzzles Old and New: How to Make and Solve Them, that defines a mechanical puzzle as “a self-contained object, composed of one or more parts, which involves a problem for one person to solve by manipulation using logic, reasoning, insight, luck, and/or dexterity.” Rhoda and the Lilly Library based the puzzle collection on this definition, creating 14 main categories to define puzzles in the collection: Put-Together Puzzles, Take-Apart Puzzles, Interlocking Solid Puzzles, Disentanglement Puzzles, Sequential Movement Puzzles, Dexterity Puzzles, Puzzle Vessels, Vanish Puzzles, Folding Puzzles, Impossible Puzzles, Puzzle Cards (including Post Cards, Trade Cards, and Cigarette Cards), Illusions, Magic, and Games & Toys. Each main category has its own subcategories as well. In addition to the puzzles, the Slocum Collection also includes items related to mechanical puzzles like books, manuscripts, optical illusions, magic tricks, and puzzle advertising cards from the 19th century. Some items in the collection date back to the 1400s; the oldest puzzle is a Cambodian Khmer Iron Lock from 1450.
This collection couldn’t exist, though, without the generosity of Jerry Slocum. His first large donation of puzzles in 2006 kick-started the mechanical puzzle selection at the library and also created a designated space in the facility, the Slocum Room, that features the puzzles in lighted cases and provides a place for visitors to sit and try to solve them.
Slocum began collecting puzzles in 1939, when he was only 8 years old, after his parents went to the New York World’s Fair and returned home with his first puzzle. He continued collecting through his school years and even into adulthood. During that time, he learned to make his own puzzles when he couldn’t find the type he wanted in a store. He began publishing articles and books on the topic in 1955, while working at Hughes Aircraft Company. Eventually Slocum’s collection grew into a multinational selection of puzzles from many different centuries, including a particularly large group from the 19th century. In 1978, he reached out to others in the puzzle-collecting culture and started the International Puzzle Party, originally a gathering of puzzle collectors that would spend social time in his living room. That first small party has grown into an international phenomenon, providing an annual forum for puzzle collectors to visit with each other and exchange and sell mechanical puzzles and related ephemera. It’s somewhat exclusive, too-attendance is by personal invitation only from a member of the hosting team, and all locations and dates are held in the strictest confidence. Slocum has become something of a celebrity in the puzzling world, authoring more than 14 books and appearing on radio and television shows, including Martha Stewart Living and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. A visit to the Lilly Library in 2003 to research his book, The Tangram Book, spurred his decision to make that hefty first donation.
What Jerry has done with his collection is absolutely wonderful,” said puzzle expert Will Shortz. “[He] donated it to one of the greatest libraries in the country, endowed a curator position for it, and ensured that the collection is available for research and continued use, not just stuck away in a vault. Puzzles intersect with nearly every part of culture. History, media, politics, social phenomena, technology, and more. His collection is a prism for seeing the whole world. It’s a lot of fun, too. I admire Jerry tremendously for doing this.”
As for Rhoda, he was interested in mechanical puzzles long before coming to work at the Lilly Library. He says he inherited a love of word puzzles from his mother, and growing up, he thrived on those and recreational math problems he would do in school. He also enjoyed playing with peg solitaire puzzles and horseshoe disentanglement puzzles-but it wasn’t until he arrived at the library, where he worked as a cataloger for five years before taking on the curator position, that his understanding of these puzzles actually began to take shape.
“I had no idea that they were a type of puzzle called ‘mechanical puzzles,’ let alone that there were so many categories of them,” he said. “I only really started to understand the variety of puzzles, both mechanical and otherwise, when I started as a cataloger at the IU Libraries’ Lilly Library. One of the first collections that I worked on as a cataloger, and that I worked on right up to when I became the Curator of Puzzles, was the book collection that Mr. Slocum donated along with his puzzles. As I cataloged those books I began to learn more and more about puzzles and their history. Some puzzles were very familiar, such as peg solitaire, and some were completely new. Learning about mechanical puzzles through cataloging Mr. Slocum’s books rekindled my interest in mechanical puzzles that I had through my childhood.”
Even though there’s a continuous stream of puzzles coming in from Slocum’s collection-he still donates to this day-Rhoda also has the task of bringing outside puzzles into the collection. For this, he has to take a few things into consideration. First, any puzzle he accepts must fit into the Lilly Library’s overall mission to hold rare and unusual materials. It gets a little more puzzle-specific from there.
“One unique thing we take into account for puzzles is the concept behind the puzzle,” Rhoda said. “We will often take into consideration if the puzzle is an advancement on other puzzles of its category. That will often include some consideration of the construction and physical elements of the puzzle in addition to the more intangible elements of the puzzle, such as the difficulty of the puzzle or if the puzzle is satisfying to solve. In some respects we are looking for elegance in a puzzle, both in an aesthetic and mathematical sense.”
As much as he’d like to, Rhoda is unable to test all of the puzzles coming into the collection. He says there just isn’t enough time every day for him to complete the 35,000-plus group. But he does try an example of every type of puzzle in the collection and has dedicated time each week to work on a new one. This process helps him to understand the collection more, through both the puzzles themselves and the puzzle designers’ thought processes. But that doesn’t mean he’s able to solve every puzzle-not right away, at least. “Different people have different types of puzzles that they find more challenging than others,” he said. “I tend to find that sequential movement puzzles, such as the Rubik’s Cube or the 15 Puzzle, are more difficult for me than other puzzles. However, if I keep working with those types of puzzles I am usually able to discover the sequence. Regardless of the type of puzzle, I find that if I dedicate the time to really work with a puzzle, I will eventually understand it and solve it.”
Rhoda likes many puzzles in the huge collection, but there are a few types that he names as favorites: interlocking puzzles, disentanglement puzzles, and secret opening box puzzles (specifically those by Akio Kamei and the Karakuri Creation Group). Those box puzzles are the ones he challenges himself with, always trying to find a more unique and complicated one to stretch his puzzling muscles. Rhoda also shared what he considers to be the most unique puzzles of the bunch. Two come from Slocum’s collection and two are some of the oldest in the library.
Giant Wooden Robot: “This is a three-foot-tall wooden interlocking puzzle in the shape of a robot. I often use this puzzle as a very large example of a style of figural wooden interlocking puzzles known in Japanese as kumiki-even though this puzzle was made by American puzzle designer Allen Rolfs in 1995- since it shares many of the stylistic elements of a kumiki puzzle.”
Chinese Rings: “This is a set of Chinese Rings with 65 rings. Mr. Slocum had this puzzle made to commemorate one of his favorite puzzles from his childhood. The number of rings is one more than the 64 disks of edouard Lucas’s version of the Tower of Hanoi problem. I call this puzzle a ‘practically impossible puzzle’ since it is not actually classified in the impossible puzzle category. Much like Lucas’s problem, to solve the puzzle it would take over 585 billion years.”
Newly Selected Sei Shonagon’s Wisdom Plates: “The Seishonagon Shinsen chie-no-ita or Newly selected Sei Shonagon’s Wisdom Plates from 1743 is a geometric dissection puzzle similar to the Tangram. This puzzle is remarkable because it includes the earliest extant example of a puzzle that includes problem and solution books. Unlike earlier examples of books that contained puzzles, these books are the earliest examples of books solely dedicated to puzzles.”
Wine Pot: “A puzzle vessel that may be older than the Wisdom Plates is also on display in our permanent collection. It is a wine pot from around 1700, which corresponds with the Kangxi era in China. This puzzle is a bottom-filling vessel, a design that was also used in teapots in the 19th century. This particular wine pot, however, adds an additional step for pouring the liquid out. Not only do you have to tip the wine pot to pour, the whole pot has to be inverted before anything will come out.”
More information and resources related to the Slocum Puzzle Collection can be found at http://www.indiana. edu/~liblilly/collections/overview/ puzzles.shtml, including a link to the online database of the collection. Those who want to stop in and play with the puzzle collection are only an email away-Rhoda requests that potential visitors email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a visit, or click the “Contact the Curator” link at the bottom of every record in the online database.