Recreational mathematics: a chronology

Recreational mathematics exercises are found in all cultures and in any time period. Even one of the oldest surviving mathematical documents, the Egyptian "Rhind Mathematical Papyrus", which dates back to around 1650 BC, and ancient Chinese and Greek texts contain such activities.  

Recreational mathematics reaches the Occident

The tradition continues in India and Armenia and eventually reaches its zenith with the Arabs. Thanks to translations from Arabic into Latin, this knowledge also arrives in the West, where it is blended with existing collections of exercises designed to educate young people. In the period that follows, we encounter recreational mathematics exercises in monastic literature and writings on practical mathematics in both Latin and the national languages. Arithmeticians seize upon these examples to explain their theories and lighten the subject matter of their books.  

First works on recreational mathematics

In the seventeenth century, extensive collections of exercises begin to appear that are primarily geared towards entertainment value and no longer dwell on the theory; they often involve tasks from other fields, such as astronomy or mechanics, too. The first book devoted explicitly and entirely to recreational mathematics is probably "Problèmes plaisants et délectables qui se font par les nombres" by Claude Gaspard Bachet de Méziriac (1612), a compilation of all the mathematical games known at the time. This is soon followed by "Récréations mathématiques" by Jean Leurechon (Erstausgabe 1624) and works by Claude Mydorge, Denis Henrion and Daniel Schwenter. First published in two volumes in 1694, "Récréations mathématiques et physiques" by Jacques Ozanam is a seminal work for the entire eighteenth century.

Heyday of recreational mathematics

The most notable works of the nineteenth century are penned by Edouard Lucas and Lewis Carroll. In the first half of the twentieth century, Sam Loyd, Hermann Schubert, Wilhelm Ahrens, Henry Ernest Dudeney and W.W. Rouse Ball are prolific authors in the field of recreational mathematics.

Recreational mathematics today

Martin Gardner's column in "Scientific American" enthuses and inspires a whole new generation of authors. From 1956 to 1986 Gardner examines a remarkable variety of recreational mathematics topics, introducing the work of both his predecessors and his peers from other countries to a wider audience. The thriving current book industry and the publication of specialist journals and articles in numerous magazines, newspapers and, last but not least, on the Internet just go to show that people are as interested in recreational mathematics as ever and that the older games have not lost their appeal.