|Historical Shunting designs|
(This is a screenshot from Rob Stegmann's extensive page on the subject)
So how did I come to the conclusion there are not enough (or really any) shunting puzzles out there in the wild? Well, first you have to know how I even became aware of these fascinating puzzles, or rather, reminded of them. Let’s retrace my steps, shall we? Don’t worry, it’s a short trip, and I’ll even throw in some pictures to keep you occupied. Cue music.....
It all began a few months back when I was out on a run in the neighborhoods near my house. I Have recently reached the age where I can refer to myself as being at a “certain age” (Ed - I got there quite some time ago), I’ve come to the realization that knee joints are not designed to take repetitive impact for long periods and, quite likely, did not even evolve to be useful beyond that “certain age”. That’s a problem for someone who is accustomed to a steady dose of exercise-induced endorphins (Ed - I always thought exercise was bad for you but when Mrs S threatened to chuck me out if I got fat, I took up exercise and lurve those endorphins!). A great solution for me has been running hills. There is hardly any impact running up a hill, and boy will it get your heart rate up fast. On one particular death-run, I crested the summit and paused to enjoy some well-deserved wheezing. While collecting myself for the next go, I casually inspected the ever-present pile of trash by a particular neighbor’s house. I am always fascinated by what people put out on the curb (a professional bent) so I can’t help but look over the pile. Junk, as usual. But one thing catches my eye. This:
|A prize from the roadside. Some water damage, but still collectible. Make an offer.|
The box was duly deposited in my garage for future inspection. Following a quick meal, I went out to play with my prize. Seeing that rest of the box was worthless, I detached the puzzle panel. Now, presented with any puzzle, especially one I feel confident I can master, I do the natural thing: mix it up, take a few moments to forget what I just did, then proceed to solve. This one turns out to be pretty easy for an adult, no surprise, but it was not unenjoyable. Twenty pegs of four colors and a bunch of tracks to follow gives one plenty of movement options. Solving just entails moving things out of the way as you shift like colors next to one another on the lines. Add a time element to this process, however, and then you have a challenge. It’s easy to solve, but are you solving it the most efficient way possible? You can gauge this to some degree by timing yourself, using the same starting position of course.
|Sequential movement aimed at very young kids|
|Main line and siding, the fundamental shunting layout|
So I finally scratched the itch and now the research began in earnest. Van Delft and Botermans illustrated a very simple shunting puzzle with a few cars and a single siding. Unfortunately, it is not so much a puzzle as a tool for exploring the switching concept. My next step was to check Robs Puzzle Page, by far the most comprehensive web-posted puzzle collection, meticulously organized and updated by fellow New Englander Rob Stegmann. As expected, Rob had shunting puzzles, and a lot of interesting historical patent info on them as well. The earliest known shunting puzzle design dates to 1885. Not unexpectedly, train shunting puzzles enjoyed a flurry of popularity during the golden age of rail. As with patents generally, I suspect most of these shunting puzzles were never commercially produced. But the age of Victorian parlor puzzling was ramping up and many designers saw railroading as a source of inspiration. Rob’s page shows 27 different railroad-based puzzle patents, many of them using a triangular track arrangement. Following this are eight actual shunting puzzles that reached market. But don’t get your hopes up. Most of these are long out of production. The most recent seems to be a Bits and Pieces model called Train in Line. It is composed of a short serpentine track, split in the middle, with five cars and an engine. It looks nice but, of course, is no longer produced:
|Train in Line from Bits and Pieces.|
Image from Rob Stegman’s shunting puzzles section. Hopefully he doesn’t mind me showing it here.
|Engineer’s and Switchman’s puzzle in the Hordern-Dalgety Collection. Patented in 1890|
Searching the trusty interweb more generally, I couldn’t find any shunting puzzles available for purchase. Readership, take that as a challenge and please prove me wrong. Like my editor/publisher (and friend) Kevin, I do this in my spare time and am admittedly pretty spent by the time I get around to it. My searches are cursory at best.
However, during my web search, I was rewarded with an absolutely fantastic website on shunting puzzles put up by our distant cousins in the model railroading world. The site is here and most of what I am about to say I gleaned from it. It’s a great page and I encourage you to explore it in depth. It turns out that model railroaders are huge (to put it mildly) fans of shunting puzzles, partly for the reason puzzlers are (the thrill and fascination of the solve), but also as a way to increase enjoyment of their hobby. Shunting gives you something to do with a model track, as opposed to, say, watching your train go around in circle. Designing a shunting layout with complicated switching arrangements, and then implementing and running it, is a real challenge. Even as a non-railroader I can see the attraction. It looks fun. (Ed - Aaaargh nooooo! I daren't get into that as a hobby.....even a Whack! Ouch! wouldn't suffice as my punishment from she who frightens the bejeeeezus out of me!)
Although switching and sidings are standard fair for model railroaders, model shunting in the modern age (second half the twentieth century) traces back to two archetypes discussed extensively at the webpage above. These are the Timesaver, invented by John Allen in the early 1970s, and Inglenook Sidings, first developed by Alan Wright in the 1950s. John Allen’s Timesaver involves switching five cars to their preset destinations on the layout and doing so in the quickest time possible, or using the fewest moves possible. Traditionally, the puzzle was played with cars in the same starting positions so players could compare their skills.
|John Allen’s Timesaver shunting layout, five cars and an engine|
(image from the linked website)
|Alan Wright’s Inglenook Sidings, a modern classic|
(image from the linked website)
So that’s my pitch and the end of the story. I was brought to the exciting world of shunting puzzles by way of a child’s puzzle found on the side of the road. A strange route, but none the worse for it. Hopefully shunting puzzles are as fun to play as I claim they are. And hopefully we will all get to experience them in the not-to-distant future. Back to you Kevin.....
Thank you so much Mike! That was a great trip into a totally new area for me. I agree that it is a ripe area for a good woodworker to produce something beautiful. Hopefully one of them will read this and will jump on the challenge.