How Tangrams Work

Tangram History

Tangrams' true origins are obscure. Historians don't really know exactly when they were invented. The earliest record of the puzzle dates to around 1796, to a book that is mentioned in the historical record, but has never been found [source: Danesi]. Extant tangram sets have been dated as far back as 1802, and a Chinese book of tangram problems from 1813 has also been discovered [source: Slocum].

Whenever the modern form of the tangram was invented, the puzzle has its roots in Chinese mathematical tradition going back centuries. As long ago as the 3rd century B.C., Chinese mathematicians would study geometric principles by manipulating cut outs of various shapes. In fact, the Chinese used this method to deduce what Europeans call the Pythagorean theorem, the relationship between the sides and the hypotenuse of a right triangle. Historians have surmised that tangrams were likely developed from this type of problem solving [source: Slocum].

Whatever the truth about tangrams, the myths and legends about their history are far more interesting. Most of these -- for example, the story that a mythical god named Tan invented the shapes, and used them to communicate a creation story in a set of parchments written in gold -- can be traced back to a writer and puzzle inventor named Sam Loyd. Loyd's 1903 book, "The 8th Book of Tan," weaved this and other tall tales about the history of tangrams. Loyd made those stories up, and probably expected his readers to be in on the joke [source: Slocum and Hotermans]. But to this day, some of Loyd's "history" shows up in otherwise factual sources.

Loyd's book rode a global wave of popularity for the tangram at the time. Almost as soon as tangrams spread from China to Europe and the United States, around 1818, they became a sensation. Books of puzzles and tile sets made of polished wood or ornately carved ivory became extremely popular in Germany, France, England, Italy and the United States.

Just like the origin of the puzzle itself, the origin of the name "tangram" is hard to pin down. At first, it was simply called "The Chinese Puzzle." The name tangram came later. Some of the theories include that it derived from the English word "trangam" (which means "trinket"). According to others, the word is a portmanteau of "Tang," a historical Chinese dynasty, and "gram," which means a figure or drawing [source: Grunfeld].