Sunday, 16 July 2017

One of the Toughest Puzzles I Have Solved

Helix the Burr
Many months ago I was chatting via email with that good friend of mine that I mentioned last week who has been giving me such great advice on which puzzles to buy. He suggested to me that I should hunt around and see if I could obtain a copy of the Helix the Burr Puzzle as he thought it was something really special. I immediately shot off to Bill Cutler's website to have a look at it. Bill had designed it in 1982 - he had been looking for burrs with an interesting structure and sequence to them. It was originally intended to become the Wausau '82 puzzle, however, the design quickly became too complex and it was formally introduced at the Sixth Annual International Puzzle Party at Jerry Slocum's house on April 2, 1983. The first solution was received from Edward Hordern.

At this time Bill had designed it entirely in his head and by real model prototyping. It must have been quite a feat to achieve something like that and is just a small hint at the incredible brain that he must have. His website describes the puzzle as follows:
"This burr features the most interesting disassembly sequence that I have ever created. The name comes from the spiral structure that is created by the 8 pieces surrounding the central 5-piece core."
The original batch of 20 puzzles made by Jerry McFarland was sold between 1990 and 1992 and I am not sure whether Bill ever released another batch (his site suggests that more may be made available in 2017). Brian Young made a batch of 30 of them in 2004 as a Limited edition. Both Bill's and Brian's editions have been long sold out and have been seen at auctions for enormous sums. In 2015 Eric Fuller made a batch of them too (using Maple and Bubinga). He made 40 copies in total and they sold out quickly. I am not sure how I missed out but I suspect I had already spent my budget. Of course after being told how essential the puzzle is, I had been kicking myself. You may notice that the puzzle actually appears on Eric's home page.

Recently Eric has sold off his backlog of spares to free up space and I tried to get one from him then. I put in a fairly decent bid and unfortunately missed out again. I had more or less resigned myself to never getting a copy when another one turned up at the last Cubic auction. I hate auctions with a passion because I never seem to win anything and the couple of times I have done so I got carried away and spent far too much and ended up resenting the puzzle I bought. But the last auction had so much good stuff on it that after lurking for a while and watching a few items that rapidly spiralled out of control, I noticed a copy of Helix the Burr not having too much interest. I put in a last minute bid and was astounded when I won. I was pleased to see that the owner was based in the UK and I wouldn't be caught by the customs men.

After a few days of admiring my purchase I found some time to play and noted that there are 3 or 4 moves that didn't seem to go anywhere. Luckily there is no long dead end. I then noticed the wonderful helical arrangement of the cross pieces and wondered whether they were in that arrangement for a reason? Of course they are! After a couple of days of getting nowhere, I made a big discovery. There is a truly beautiful and very precise helical sequence before the whole puzzle suddenly becomes very loose and spreads apart. This movement scared the bejeezus out of me and I immediately reversed my tracks! After a gulp, I repeated it a few times to check that I knew what I was doing and continued with the search. Despite it all becoming incredibly rickety and looking like it might collapse in a heap, I realised that it was still very stable. This is quite amazing to me and a huge tribute to both designer and craftsman. With everything really loose, I hunted for the next move. And hunted. And hunted! Nope! Nada! Not a thing! I put it back to the beginning and whinged about it to my friend Derek!

Derek asked a pointed question about what I had tried and the result of his questioning led me to a horrible realisation. There is another reason why the puzzle had to be designed in Mr Cutler's was not just the year. Think© about it! This realisation opened up a whole realm of ideas but interestingly not a lot of them were possible. In fact, only one piece was movable and in several ways. I went through them all and of course the very last thing I tried produced something fascinating. After some more interesting helical themed ideas I had a nice pile of wood:

Just look at the notches on that bottom piece!
Looking at the pieces, it can be seen that the notches are made in ½ and ⅓ thicknesses. The central piece is a masterpiece! Now it was time for the reassembly. Gulp! Now, I am NOT terribly bright but I am not completely stupid! A puzzle that cannot be modelled with Burrtools and without a printed solution is not one I am just going to disassemble and pile up the pieces. That would be a recipe for disaster and I already have one burr that has sat in pieces next to me for a couple of years and I don't want another one! So I had taken a very nice sequence of photos with my phone and had actually kept all the pieces in sequence on the table:

All in order and orientation
It was time for the reassembly and after collecting all the pieces up for the obligatory photo on my kitchen granite, I set them all out in the order of the pic above. I started following my disassembly pics in reverse order. I was ready for a huge triumph and a big blog post......and failed! I got to this bit:

Looks easy?
Something was wrong.....the position above and insertion of that piece was impossible! HELP!!! I tried for hours and failed again and again and again. Mrs S was getting fed up and it was time for me to cook. The pieces were gathered up and put away for a later attempt.

Three days later I proved to myself, and am confessing to you all out there in puzzle land, that I am not terribly bright. I had not been able to follow my own pictures! It would appear that I cannot tell the difference between a half height notch and a third height. Let me tell you that in puzzling size really does matter - I had a single piece completely upside down. After 3 days of trying the same thing again and again, I forced myself to start from the beginning. The very first set of 3 pieces can be put together incorrectly but still look ok. However this allows the subsequent moves to continue correctly until this one and you WILL hit a wall. If only I had been clever enough to look carefully or to start at the beginning, it would have saved a whole lot of chest pain and mumbling to myself with the subsequent laser burning stare from she who frightens me to death.

I have now solved it several more times and can now follow my reassembly pictures every time! I haven't dared attempt it without them. I must agree with my puzzling mentor; the Helix the Burr is a fantastic puzzle and well worth adding to your collection.

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