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The history of jigsaw puzzles

The London map maker, John Spilsbury, is supposed to have been the originator of today’s jigsaw puzzles. Apparently he began with a map of Europe that was pasted onto a piece of flat wood. By using a jigsaw, he cut the various countries into large shapes that were not remotely similar to today’s jigsaw puzzle pieces. The idea was that children could benefit by placing the countries correctly thereby learning some geography. At the time the British Empire was large enough so that the expression “The sun never sets of the British Empire” was, quite literally, true. It would be possible therefore to create a map of the entire planet. There are such historical puzzles still available today which are quite distinct: they are two circles joined with all the countries, oceans and major cities inside each of the circles.

Despite there being some wooden puzzles still available today, almost all puzzle are now made of a very high quality board made exclusively for jigsaw puzzles. The material is very dense and can be cut into very tiny shapes characteristic of the more common puzzle shape we recognise today. Usually, a picture is glued onto a puzzle board and then run into a press that has a large die manufactured into the desired shape. The press with the die then pushes down with a force of about 200 tons. The resulting jigsaw puzzle pieces have a clean and sharp edge. The puzzle is deposited into a plastic bag and any remaining pieces stuck in the die are air blown into the bag as well. As can be imagined the puzzle making process is not new and still relies on skilled craftsman to make the dies which have to be replaced when dull. It also still relies on a pleasing image to be glued onto a suitable board surface of usually recycled paper that, once cut into the desired number of jigsaw pieces, can be made over and over again.

Today, puzzles are made up of interlocking pieces. This ensures that each puzzle piece fits snuggly together into the correct location with a unique and satisfying click. For those puzzle enthusiasts who have limited room, one of the features of a fully interlocking puzzle is that it can be made up on a puzzle mat. Gibsons puzzle mat is made of acrylic wool. The puzzle and the loose pieces will remain exactly where you left them on the mat even after the mat is rolled up and put away. You simply take the rolled up mat out. Take off the Velcro ties and the puzzle will be ready to go just as you left it.

Although puzzle pieces may look identical, they are all subtly different. Some shapes have concave knobs and others the convex matching shape. Rather than be totally flummoxed by the exercise, it might be profitable to employ a simple strategy. The puzzle edges all have at least one straight side and the four corner pieces have at least two straight sides without holes or knobs. By simply collecting the edge pieces a true and tied method of staring the puzzle can be achieved.

Obviously related areas in the puzzle will be another indication of how to proceed. Whether it be the colour of flowers or sky and cloud, matching those pieces up will help solve another challenge. Amazingly puzzles have not really changed in hundreds of years and the satisfaction of assembling a puzzle is a lot of fun for individuals and the family too.

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