Antedating of "Outside the Box" (UNCLASSIFIED)

victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Mon May 3 22:36:25 UTC 2010

FWIW, I find it rather unlikely, although not impossible. For one, the
puzzle is quite old, predating Sam Loyd, yet, the supposedly
associated terminology did not develop until much later. Second, there
is no box of any kind when the puzzle is given--there are just nine
dots or circles on a piece of paper with no explicit lines. Basically,
it has the smell of the usual folk etymology and urban legend that
these things usually have.

Instead, I would suggest a different, later path to coinage.
Behaviorist and Gestaltist experiments often required putting the
subject "in the box" either to hide something from the subject or to
isolate him/her from external stimuli. One such experiment involved
chimps in a cage with various objects outside the case that could only
be dragged through if they were disassembled first, then reassembled
once inside--allowing, for example, to swing a long stick to knock
down a hanging banana. Other experiments required human subjects to
identify or deduce the objects that were inside or outside the box
(with the subject being on the other side, I suppose). These
experiments--both human and animal--were quite common in psychology
from the 1930s to the early 1970s, which, AFAICT is more reflective of
the period when the expression "outside the box" was coined. FWIW, the
9-dot puzzle was a common staple of gestalt theorists.

For more details, take a look at Wertheimer's Productive Thinking,
which first appeared in 1945 (originally Harper & Row, but was
published by Univ of Chicago Press until about a decade ago).
Wertheimer is the original US source for "out-of-the-box thinking",
although I do not recall seeing that phrase in the book. Polya's books
should also be helpful--if anyone used "out of the box" in connection
with the 9-dot problem, it would have been him.

It is telling, on the other hand, that Fred Shapiro's find is a text
on management psychology that explicitly refers to lines and boxes.
However, they don't seem to be the same "boxes" as those one would
draw to prevent himself form solving the puzzle.

As I've complained many times before, all my books are in storage, 900
miles away, so I have no immediate access to either Wertheimer or
Polya. So I'll have to leave that job to someone else, for now.

To make matters even more interesting, as far as the puzzle is
concerned, Gardner had proposed a solution that uses only three
lines--provided we are dealing with "physical dots" or circles, not
geometric points. I'll leave it to your outside the box thinking to
figure that one out.


On Mon, May 3, 2010 at 5:50 PM, Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at> wrote:
> FWIW, I've long made the same association.
> JL
> On Mon, May 3, 2010 at 4:39 PM, Mullins, Bill AMRDEC <
> Bill.Mullins at> wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>> There is a moderately famous puzzle in which a 3x3 grid of nine dots is
>> to be traversed by four connected straight lines (the easiest way to see
>> the puzzle is to do a Google Images search for ("nine dots" AND "four
>> lines") or see the Wikipedia page for "thinking outside the box").  The
>> only way to solve this puzzle is for the lines to extend far past the
>> boundaries defined by the 3x3 grid of dots -- they must go "outside the
>> box".
>> I've seen it claimed that this puzzle is the origin of the phrase.
>> Pittsburgh magician Paul Gertner has an extended set-piece built around
>> this premise.
>> The puzzle itself is old.  Here are some references to it found by David
>> BIBLIOGRAPHY" This is his 2005 edition, but it is a work in progress
>> (found in various editions on the web), and he may have updated it
>> since.
>> Loyd, Sam. In G. G. Bain., The prince of puzzle-makers. An interview
>> with Sam Loyd. Strand Magazine 34 (No. 204) (Dec 1907) 771-777.
>> Solutions of Sam Loyd's puzzles. Ibid. 35 (No. 205) (Jan 1908) 110.. He
>> gives the 3 x 3 lattice in four lines as the Columbus Egg Puzzle.
>> [However, the Columbus Egg Puzzle was a mechanical puzzle in which one
>> attempted to stand an egg up on one end, made popular at the 1892
>> Columbus Exposition].

The American Dialect Society -

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