While researching the origin of the tangram, it quickly became evident that this fact remains unknown to this day. The same goes for how the tangram got its name. Depending on the source, the history of the tangram will vary, and may include the following possibilities:
One such story claims that the tangram originated from a large, perfectly square glass frame that was ordered by a king. However, before it could be delivered to the king’s castle it was dropped. Surprisingly, it had not shattered into a thousand pieces, but had broken into seven perfect, geometric shapes. When they tired to put the pieces back in their original form, they realized they could make many other designs. They presented this to the king as a puzzle, and he was fascinated with it (Wichita State University Department of Mathematics and Statistics, 1999).
Although this is a fascinating story of how the tangram began, other sources claim a more modest origin. They believe that the tangram can be traced back to the Orient before the 18th century, and then spread westward (Archimedes' Labratory, 1997). While the tangram is often said to be ancient, its existence in the Western world has only been verified as far back as 1800. “Tangrams were brought to America by Chinese and American ships during the first part of the 19th century. The earliest example known was made of ivory in a silk box and was given to the son of an American ship owner in 1802” (Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 2007).
Others believe that the beginning of the tangram may be rooted in a yanjitu furniture set during a ruling period in China referred to as the Song Dynasty. Originally, the furniture set consisted of six rectangular tables. However, a seventh piece was added, triangular in shape, which allowed people to arrange the seven tables into a big square table. They later became a set of wooden blocks for playing (Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 2007).
According to Samuel Loyd, an American puzzle expert, the puzzle was invented 4,000 years ago by the God Tan. This was described in the Seven Books of Tan where each volume contained over 1,000 puzzles that illustrated the creation of the world and of species. The seven pieces were taken from the sun, the moon, and the five planets of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, and Venus. This elaborate story was later uncovered to be a hoax (Mathematics Fair, 2001).
Although there are many conflicting stories to how the tangram got it’s beginning, “The earliest mention of the tangram was found in a book dated in 1813 AD. At this time, the puzzle was already considered to be old” (Wichita State University Department of Mathematics and Statistics, 1999). Whatever the date the tangram was invented, rearrangement puzzle roots can be traced back to the 3rd century BC (Archimedes' Labratory, 1997)! Therefore, the tangram has without a doubt been around for a long time.