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How Towers of Hanoi Works


The History of Towers of Hanoi

Towers of Hanoi was invented and marketed in 1883 by Edouard Lucas (who used the name Professor N. Claus, which was an anagram of his last name). Lucas, a French professor of mathematics, spread the legend that helped popularize the game by including a written account of the Brahmin monks' puzzling plight in each box, along with the game's instructions. The tale gained further traction when it was depicted in several publications of the day. Henri De Parville, editor of the journal "La Nature," also wrote about the legend in the late 1800s [source: Stockmeyer]. The setting of the legend occasionally varies, and has included the city of Hanoi in Vietnam.

Lucas became known for his work with the Fibonacci number sequence, a principle that recently experienced a popular resurgence after the "Angels and Demons" movie from 2009. The Fibonacci-related Lucas number series is, in fact, named after Lucas. In the Lucas series, each number is the sum of the two numbers preceding it (except for the first two numbers in the series). An example of the Lucas series is: 2, 1, 3, 4, 7 and 11.

In addition, Lucas perfected a way to determine whether a number was prime, a strategy that's still in use today. Many of his mathematical discoveries are standard coursework for budding mathematicians, and the Towers of Hanoi remains a helpful aid when illustrating recursive theory [source: Anderson, et al.]. At its most basic, recursive theory is like continuously slicing an orange into halves or pieces. One large problem is broken down into several smaller problems, which are then broken into smaller problems until they cannot be further reduced. By building smaller towers on various posts before reconstructing them as one large tower, puzzle solvers employ recursive theory.

Lucas died in 1891 after a broken dinner plate lacerated his cheek and caused an infection. His obituary in the January 1892 issue of "Popular Science Monthly" called his mathematical inventions "as amusing as they were instructive."