David Singmaster RIP
The world of recreational maths has lost one of its greats.
15 February 2023
When I first heard the name David Singmaster it was, as for so many other people, because of Rubik’s Cube.
This puzzle first exploded into public consciousness sometime around 1980. I was at school, and like many of my classmates, I had become obsessed with it. But I couldn’t solve it. Well, I could solve one face, which was enough to impress my parents, but I was frustrated that I couldn’t crack the whole thing. When I discovered that there was a book by David Singmaster that offered a solution, I ordered it immediately. Thanks to David’s elegant notation, I quickly learned to solve a cube from any position. Now I could really impress my parents, though I did feel a bit of a cheat.
It was another 15 years before I came across David’s name again. I was running a workshop on creative thinking and puzzles for some engineering students at South Bank University. “You should meet my colleague Professor Singmaster,” said my contact. David’s number was in the South Bank Directory so I rang him up, and asked if he’d like to meet. I was soon to discover that David would always be happy to meet if it meant an opportunity to talk about puzzles. Not only did he invite me for coffee, but it would be AT HIS HOUSE.
Little did I know what an eye-opening adventure awaited me. Think of Charlie Bucket on his first visit to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and then just replace sweets with puzzles. Thousands of them. Every shelf, in every room, was packed with puzzling curiosities of every shape and size. One whole wall was filled just with variants of Rubik’s Cube – big ones, tiny ones, branded ones, triangular ones (yes I know, a triangular cube, go figure…). There was even the so-called Irish Rubik’s Cube, with all its faces coloured green. Even I could solve that one. It was a grotto of serendipity.
Just being able to pick things off the shelf and play was a pleasure – but it was rare that you’d be alone. David would be rummaging around, looking for something to show you. He’d pluck some puzzle of tangled metal pieces off a shelf, and challenge you to untangle it. After a few minutes of frustration, you’d ask David for help, and he’d then gleefully take it on, becoming increasingly absorbed as he reminded himself how to solve it. Spending time with David was often more a case of watching David, as he playfully fiddled with one of his toys before finally declaring success with a huge grin and a bellowing laugh.
But solving David’s puzzles was the easy part. The real challenge was leaving his house. If you needed to be out by 1pm, it was best to start planning your exit at noon. “Rob, did I ever show you this…”… “Oh and that reminds me, have you ever seen one of these…” … They were the longest goodbyes, but also the most stimulating. You didn’t want to leave in case you missed the best bit.
Not only was David an incredible collector of puzzles and puzzle history, he was only too happy to share his knowledge. He knew almost everything there was to know about puzzles – and when he didn’t, he always knew which book to look in.
Of course a puzzle obsessive needs an understanding family. Most people build an extension to their house so they can have more space for the kids. The Singmaster extension was first and foremost created to house more puzzles. David’s wife Deborah had the patience of Job, though I did notice that David seemed to have long given up trying to get her to solve his latest acquisition. Deborah was always such a welcoming host – perhaps in part relieved that somebody had come along to play with David.
I also discovered that there was a whole community of grown-ups, some of them long retired, who would gather at David’s house just to swap and play with toys, among them Tim Rowett who has subsequently become a Youtube star. It was a joyful reminder that you’re only as old as you feel.
Thankfully, there is a new generation of puzzle fans across the world, who have been brought together by the internet. Many of them gather at the annual conference called Maths Jam, organised by Colin Wright, at which David was a regular attendee and where he was, of course, completely at home. David will be greatly missed by everyone who knew him, but his spirit will live on in pubs, in classrooms and anywhere else around the world, when somebody casually picks up a Rubik's cube, smiles, and plays with it.