Inside the World's Only Public Collection of Mechanical Puzzles

Jennifer Jameson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)
Jennifer Jameson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

Calling all problem-solvers and puzzle masters: A library in Bloomington, Indiana, is home to the world's only public display of mechanical puzzles. The Jerry Slocum Mechanical Puzzle Collection can be found at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, which also houses rare books and manuscripts, including Queen Elizabeth I's Great Seal and an early printed copy of "The Star Spangled Banner."

The collection is named after Jerry Slocum, a Chicago-area native who started donating his personal collection of puzzles to the library in 2006. The library now has over 34,000 mechanical puzzles, which, unlike jigsaw and crossword puzzles, tend to feature interconnected pieces that must be physically manipulated in order to solve the problem. There are exceptions, though. One subset of mechanical puzzle called an “impossible puzzle” requires no movement at all; instead, the player must figure out how the puzzle was built.

An online database of the collection lets users search by the puzzle’s date of creation, designer, maker, or classification. The oldest item is a 15th-century Khmer iron lock from Cambodia that contains trick locks and keys. But according to Indiana State Library, puzzles weren’t always created for their entertainment value. In the second century BCE, for example, Romano-Celtic puzzle padlocks were used strictly for security purposes. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the puzzle emerged as a fun pastime.

In a YouTube video uploaded by the Indiana Daily Student, the collection’s curator, Andrew Rhoda, tries his hand at the “Gear Cube Extreme,” which looks like a Rubik’s Cube on steroids. “The puzzle is complicated by the addition of gears that move at half-turns while the rest of the puzzle moves at quarter-turns,” Rhoda says in the video.

Unless a particular piece is being conserved, visitors are encouraged to grab a puzzle and start playing inside the library’s reading room. “Mechanical puzzles are really hard to understand if you see them behind glass,” Rhoda told the student news outlet in 2017. “You can sort of understand what is going on with a mechanical puzzle if you look at it behind glass and read an exhibit label. But to really understand the idea behind a puzzle, you have to handle it. You have to play with it. You have to try to solve it.”

20 Weird Clubs That Actually Exist

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

Groucho Marx once famously quipped that he'd never "want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members." Most people would probably say the same about the Martin-Baker Ejection Tie Club—a very exclusive, 63-year-old organization created specifically for individuals who have had their lives saved by an ejection seat. Currently, the club boasts more than 6000 members.

That's just one of the weird and wonderful clubs you'll learn about in our latest edition of The List Show. Join Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy as she hunts down the world's most unusual clubs (Extreme Ironing Bureau anyone?). You can watch the full video below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

An Explosive History of the T-Shirt Cannon

Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images
Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images

As the mascot for the San Antonio Spurs from 1983 to 2004, Tim Derk—also known as the Coyote—was constantly looking for ways to make the live game experience better for fans. In addition to dancing, antagonizing players, and engaging with attendees, Derk did what many mascots do to raise morale: He gave the crowd free stuff.

Shirts, hats, and other apparel were tossed out on a regular basis, though the gifts were limited to the ability of a mascot’s throwing arm. Which meant that fans seated in the upper bleachers didn’t get much of anything, except maybe a nosebleed.

Derk and the other mascots used huge rubber bands to propel shirts to those people seated higher up in the stands, but even those had limited range. Then, in the 1990s, Derk and his peers decided to become apparel arms dealers. They designed and fabricated a massive, 90-pound cast-iron pipe 4 feet in length that used the pneumatic principle to blast T-shirts into the air and into the arms of fans.

Once Derk strapped it on for an appearance during a game as “Rambote,” sports would never be the same again.

The T-shirt cannon can be traced back to Britain during World War II, when sailors on commercial freighter ships were left vulnerable after their anti-aircraft weapons had been rerouted to warships. Desperate to protect themselves from enemy attack, the sailors adopted a weapon developed by the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development. Dubbed a Holman Projector, it could shoot projectiles out of a tube using steam from the ship’s boiler.

Rugby mascot Captain Hurricane (L) stands near former Hurricanes player Norm Hewitt (R) as he fires a T-shirt cannon at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand in May 2018
Hagen Hopkins, Getty Images

Sailors usually lobbed grenades in this manner, but when they weren’t under direct threat—which was most of the time—they loaded the gun with less-lethal ammunition, like potatoes. When Winston Churchill observed a demonstration and someone forgot the grenades, operators used beer bottles instead.

Without a wartime steam boiler, people still felt a need to launch projectiles. Contemporary “spud launchers” use compressed gas, usually carbon dioxide, that is delivered into an air tank. When the trigger is pulled, the gas is released all at once, and the energy shoots whatever’s in the barrel. That can be a potato, a paintball pellet, or a rolled-up T-shirt.

Derk was intrigued by the concept of the spud launcher and adopted it for clothing. When he began brandishing his T-shirt cannon, other mascots quickly followed suit. Kenn Solomon, also known as Rocky the Mountain Lion—a mascot cheering on the Denver Nuggets—had a friend build him one after seeing Derk’s. Solomon also got involved in selling them commercially. Pretty soon, the device was in heavy use across the NBA, MLB, NFL, and NHL organizations, growing smaller and lighter with each passing year. Once 90 pounds, the cannons now weigh as little as two pounds.

This T-shirt arms race grew to include multi-barrel guns like Big Bella, a 600-pound behemoth which debuted in 2012 at a Philadelphia 76ers game and could fire 100 shirts every 60 seconds. Not to be outdone, the Milwaukee Bucks introduced a triple-barreled gun powerful enough to propel vests and jackets. The Army’s football team built a tiny T-shirt tank.

Rumble, the mascot for the Oklahoma City Thunder, fires a T-shirt cannon at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in May 2016
J Pat Carter, Getty Images

Despite having a relatively innocuous payload, these guns have not always brought joy to attendees. In 2018, a mascot named Chip at the University of Colorado-Boulder suffered an injury when a T-shirt cannon malfunctioned, shooting him in the groin. (The video, of course, went viral.) That same year, a fan named Jennifer Harughty claimed that Orbit, the mascot for the Houston Astros, shot her with a T-shirt and shattered her finger, necessitating surgery. In 2019, Alex Swanson was at Citi Field for a New York Mets game and alleged that a shirt struck him in the eye and knocked him unconscious. Both sued the respective teams.

Derk surely had no idea there would be the occasional mishap, nor could he have predicted someone might misappropriate the gun for other purposes. In 2019, a woman named Kerri Jo Hickman was arrested after being caught while trying to deliver contraband—cell phones, chargers, ear buds, and drugs—by shooting it over the fence of North Folk Correction Center in Sayre, Oklahoma, with a T-shirt cannon.

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