nine-spot problem & boxed-in thinking

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Fri Jun 2 02:23:58 UTC 2000

In response to Jesse's query (I'll send more to anyone who asks for it):

The language columnist William Safire, in a May 1995 article in the _New York
Times Magazine_, traces one strand of the origin of the phrase THINK OUTSIDE
THE BOX to "a brain teaser used in 1984 by Development Dimensions
International, management consultants." However, this is the same "brain
teaser" discussed in the preface to Edward Prestwood's 1984 book, _The
Creative Writer's Phrase-Finder_ (Palm Springs: ETC Publications); Prestwood
seeks to explain the difficulties people have in finding solutions to
seemingly difficult problems, and introduces (page vii) the now-famous
nine-dot puzzle, in which the responder is asked to connect all of nine dots
that are arranged in the shape of a box (i.e., in three rows of three dots
each) using only four straight lines, without retracing. As Prestwood notes,
the puzzle cannot be solved at all unless one draws the lines "outside the
boundaries established by the dots"--that is, one must respond unconventionall
y, thinking outside (of) the box formed by the nine dots to find the
(actually quite simple) solution.
     Prestwood does not claim to have invented either the puzzle or the
metaphor, and he indicates (page vii) that he presented it to other persons
and discussed it with them for some time before his book was written ("Some
people have remarked that the given solution is cheating"). PrestwoodÂ’s book
was aimed at a small audience (namely, those who were interested enough in
creative writing to buy his book), and it was published by a little-known
publisher. It is thus extremely unlikely that the American pubic at large
could have learned about the nine-dot puzzle and associated phrase
"[thinking] outside . . . the dots" from Prestwood's book. Rather, the phrase
would have had its source in previous (unidentified) usage which Prestwood
(and Development Dimensions International) appropriated, as did many other
persons who came upon the phrase independently.
     The puzzle itself is quite old. The puzzle appears in the following
places: (1). Sam Loyd, CYCLOPEDIA OF PUZZLES. New York: The Lamb Publishing
Company, 1914.
p301. (2). Gerald Lynton Kaufman, THE BOOK OF MODERN PUZZLES. NEW YORK,
DOVER, 1940. p46. [Kaufman gives a hint by placing a tenth dot outside the
ERNEST DUDENEY. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1951, p66. [Travers uses nine
stars rather than balls or dots. Travers attributes the origin of the puzzles
in his book to Dudeney, "the 'Puzzle King', . . . 'the most ingenious brain in
England'," who published a series of puzzles in the magazine BLIGHTY "during
and after the war of 1914-1918." The appearance of Loyd's CYCOPEDIA in 1914
suggests that he may have a claim for having originated this puzzle. Or
perhaps both stole it from some earlier source?]
     The popular writer Jim Fixx (who is perhaps best known for his books on
fitness & running--and who died of a heart attack while jogging) also
published the puzzle (without attribution) in a book that I took back to the
library without noting its title, but as I recall it was published in the
1960s or 1970s.
     David Barnhart writes that he finds the phrase in 1975. I hope he will
share the particular cite with the rest of us. My own earliest cites are
somewhat later, e.g., in the popular business magazine _Fortune_, 6 February
1984, in an article concerning C. William Gray, President of Gadall, Inc., of
Philadelphia, Ohio: "Gray says he tells his managers to be 'cross-functional'
and to 'think outside the box' of their own specialty" (page 114/3). It
appears in New York City in 1985, spoken by a high-school principal, Victor
Herbert, who is quoted in the _New York Times_ as having said, "We need to
think outside of the box to find radical solutions to a radical problem" (18
March, sec. B, page 10/5). One finds it in the magazine _Inc._ in September,
1985, in an article quoting the Visalia, California, city manager, Ted
Gaebler: "More important, he stresses, government officials must learn to
take risks and seek profits, 'think outside the box,' avoid paperwork and
regulations" (page 55). It is recorded in early 1986 in a letter to the
editor of the trade journal _Advertising Age_, written by an advertising
executive, Jean DeLong Custer, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who said, "Phil has
always liked to 'think outside the box'. He is the most innovative media
maven I've encountered" (20 February, page 33). It appears in March 1987 in
the trade journal Indiana Business (page 46), in an article about Thomas D.
Bell, Sr., president of the Hudson Institute of Indianapolis: " . . . when
Bell talks of 'getting outside the box' he's referring to the limits of
thought that many of us impose upon ourselves."

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