Daily Herald
First jigsaw puzzles helped students learn about geography
By Hope Babowice | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 3/25/2009 12:00 AM

Check these out

The Fremont Library in Mundelein suggests these books on puzzles and inventions:

• "Imaginative Inventions," by Charise Harper

• "Brainstorm! The Stories of 20 American Kid Inventors," by Tom Tucker

• "The Kids Invention Book," by Arlene Erlbach

• "The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle and Other Extraordinary Stories Behind Everyday Things," by Dan Wulfson

• "So You Want to be an Inventor," by Judith St. George

Omar Guerrero, 11, a fifth-grader at West Oak Middle School in Mundelein, asked, "How did jigsaw puzzles get their name?"

Have you ever put together a jigsaw puzzle? Small, irregularly-shaped cardboard pieces are linked to make one large picture, the same picture as the one featured on the box containing the puzzle.

Jigsaw puzzles come in all shapes and sizes. They can be round, square or rectangular. They can follow the outline of the picture, like a puzzle in the shape of a puppy or a windmill. Some puzzles are three-dimensional. There are online jigsaw puzzles. Some puzzles are very easy to put together and have large pieces that children can easily assemble. Others use thousands of pieces to complete the picture. Some are extremely difficult, using hundreds of pieces to complete a puzzle featuring a completely blank picture.

Jigsaw puzzles have been entertaining people for a very long time. The first versions had no interlocking pieces. They were pictures, usually of maps, cut into pieces.

"Jigsaw puzzles originated around 1760 in England," said Anne Williams, jigsaw puzzle historian and author of "The Jigsaw Puzzle, Piecing Together A History." The puzzles helped students to learn geography when they correctly assembled the cut-up pictures.

"The earliest ones were called dissected maps," Williams said.

The next generation of puzzles had interlocking pieces. Pictures would be glued onto a wood base. A saw with a thin blade called a coping saw or scroll saw allowed puzzle makers to cut pictures into complicated puzzles using pieces that would be notched and connect with an almost seamless fit.

During the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s, inventors and entrepreneurs tried using electricity in many new ways. Electric tools made jigsaw puzzle making even easier. Using a jigsaw, a power tool with a thin blade like a coping saw, complex puzzle cuts could be made quickly and thousands of puzzles could be produced in a short amount of time.

"Most puzzles today are not wood, they are cardboard," Williams said. "And they are not cut with saws, they are stamped out on large presses. The dies look like immense cookie cutters and they cut all the pieces at once in a single pressing."