princeps puzzle

Princeps: The world’s first electronic puzzle

When I was growing up, we had a Princeps puzzle. Don’t feel bad if you don’t know what a Princeps puzzle is. I’ll tell you more about it soon. When my dad first showed it to us, it was a marvelous revelation, and one of my first memories of the joy of solving geeky mysteries.

I must have been around eight or nine years old. Dad was on shore duty in Spain, and we lived on the Navy base in Rota. A few years earlier, a Popular Electronics article had come out with plans for “the first all ­electronic puzzle.” I guess my dad hung on to the article, because one day, he walked up to us, smiling, and said something like “Here. All the lights are off. You have to figure out how to turn them all on.”

So there we were, sitting with a box in front of us. The box was covered with lights and buttons, and pressing some buttons made a light toggle on and off, but then the buttons that worked changed, and we had no idea what we had done! My baby brother was just a toddler at this time, but the other three of us had a blast trying to figure it out.

We worked it out eventually. It took us days. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of mild frustration, a lot of silly begging for clues, but I can still see my dad’s smile in my mind’s eye, and I remember his glee at giving us something to exercise our brains and our sense of wonder. Not only that, but I still remember the sequence needed to solve the puzzle, even though it was thirty years ago and I haven’t seen the thing itself in almost that long. Here’s a video of a guy solving it, in case you’re curious. The one he’s using is exactly identical to the one my dad built. I intend to build one myself some day, when I get good enough at this electronics thing. I’ll be sure to make a video of my own when that happens.)

Now that I’ve researched the puzzle itself, I realize what a rare thing it was for this to happen. Not only is building one of these things complicated and time-­consuming, but apparently there are only one or two of the originals still in existence. At the time, though, this was not anything weird for our lives as children. Building and solving puzzles wasn’t an aberration; it was woven into the fabric of a childhood full of puzzles, games, and finding ways to figure out the world. From my mom, we learned counting by playing cards, and wordplay by doing crosswords. From my dad, we learned all sorts of puzzles and ciphers and board games, and spent many many hours in amused frustration while he refused to give us clues, making us figure things out for ourselves. As you can imagine, our frustration gave away to delight when we would finally figure out the puzzle, and we would rush to give the same experience to our siblings and friends. We didn’t realize it at the time, but our parents had infected us all with the teaching bug, and we would all use that to some degree as we grew up and followed our own passions.

I started writing this piece to try to explain why I want to learn electronics at age almost ­fifty, but it ended up being a love letter of sorts: love for my parents, for puzzles, and for everything in life that keeps us amused, amazed, and using our sense of discovery and wonder to solve the problems that are set before us.

At its core, electronics is about taking the natural phenomenon of electricity and solving the puzzle of how to do work with those amazing electrons. Similarly, teaching–whether it is teaching electronics or math or music or whatever–is about using our natural senses of wonder and curiosity to figure out how the world works, and how to make it work for us.

In a nutshell, that’s the main reason I wanted to learn electronics, and to help other people, even old non-
technical people like me, learn to make puzzles and robots and other fun, amazing things.

I’m sure I’ll talk more over the next year about why I want to learn electronics. What are your reasons?