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Impossible Puzzles: The Mystery and The History

Impossible objects are the paradoxes of the puzzle world.

Impossible objects are the paradoxes of the puzzle world. They show that the impossible is truly possible. In this fabulously insightful article, Victoria Skye introduces us to the history of impossible puzzles and the fun pieces of contradictory art that seem to defy the very laws of nature as we know them. You don’t solve an impossible object by manipulating it like a standard mechanical puzzle; you solve it by answering the question “How was it made?”

Impossible Objects: The Mystery and The History

by Victoria Skye: coming in TheMetagrobologist Issue 4:

Impossible objects are the paradoxes of the puzzle world. They show that the impossible is truly possible. Impossible puzzles are fun pieces of contradictory art that seem to defy the very laws of nature as we know them. You don’t solve an impossible object by manipulating it like a standard mechanical puzzle; you solve it by answering the question “How was it made?”

There are many different types of impossible puzzles. The variations include assorted impossible wooden objects, endless designs of impossible playing cards and a mix of impossible bottles, just to name a few. They seem impossible because the pieces may fit inside one another or are folded, braided or linked in seemingly impossible ways. The common denominator in all impossible puzzles is that the pieces are solid and that there is no cutting and rejoining of the pieces to achieve the goal of impossibility.

If you ask someone to name an impossible object, they may mention an impossible bottle. An impossible bottle is a bottle filled with items clearly too large for the bottle opening. Harry Eng, a teacher, magician and calligrapher, is the most recognised artist in the category of impossible bottles. He is considered the master of impossible bottles and made over 600 bottles in his short 10-year span of building them. He was born in 1932 and died in 1996. When asked how he made his bottles, he would often reply, “One must think long and hard for a while.” Harry loved magic and he spent a great deal of time practising his magic and creating his own card routines. If Harry visited someone who had one of his bottles with a deck of cards inside, he would ask to see the bottle. Much to their shock, he would break open the host’s bottle, take out the deck of cards and proceed to perform incredible card tricks using the deck inside. Of course, Harry would always go home and make his hosts a new impossible bottle.

Harry was known for theming his bottles or using puns to describe his bottles. One of his bottles was a “ship in a bottle,” which he created as an acknowledgement to the generations of the ship in bottle builders who came before him. It wasn’t a traditional ship in a bottle, but a pun on the idea. Harry named it the “Cutter.” It contains a pair of scissors as a pun for a type of ship called a cutter and a pack of cards representing the “deck” of the ship. The bottle is also filled with puns of other items that comprise the rest of the ship. The bottle is surprisingly small, and it is hard to comprehend how he was able to fit all of the items inside, much less how he was able to insert them through the small opening of the mouth. Harry has inspired many to follow in his footsteps, and many have tried to duplicate his ingenuity, but few have succeeded. One of those few is modern magician and bottle artist, Jeff Scanlan of Bottle Magic, who has mastered the creation of impossible bottles and continues to keep Harry’s art form alive in his own style.

The history of impossible puzzles is a fascinating one. Ships in bottles and another type of bottle called “whimsy bottles” are the predecessors of today’s impossible bottles. They date back to the 17th century and are thought to have begun with the Slavic and German culture. There is no doubt they originated before that, but there is no documented timeline to prove it.

Interested in new mechanical wooden puzzles?

Visit Wood Wonders Online.

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