It is with great sadness that G4G notes the death of David Singmaster (December 1938 – February 13, 2023).
We are collecting here some recollections from various members of the G4G community. If you have any anecdotes, memories, or tributes that you would like to share, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I had the good fortune to spend some time with Singmaster during G4G13. Being obsessed with Rubik’s cubes, I must have asked him a hundred questions and David very politely and happily shared his personal history with the cube and anecdotes that I’m sure he had to recount too many times before. I remember being impressed with what seemed like a genuine disposition of curiosity. He was happy to share his memories and knowledge, but was also interested in hearing my perspective and asked several questions of me that immediately made me feel included. I will forever be grateful for both his contributions to cubing and his kindness to me personally.
– David Plaxco
I got my first Rubik’s cube in ~1980. My only guidance was an article by David in Games & Puzzles magazine. There were no spoilers, so I still had to work out how to solve it, but the article introduced me to the mathematics, and a notation – the one that is now standard. It fuelled my interest. I was subsequently aware of David as an eminent puzzler, including through some BBC Radio 4 appearances. It was therefore an honour to meet him in person at several Mathsjam gatherings in recent years. He was charming and interesting. Everyone respected him.
– Martin Whitworth
This photo [left] was taken at David’s home in Southbank, London in 1993. The two high school students were from Edmonton. We were on a five-week six-country European tour, and Britain was our last stop.
I dug up a photo of David Singmaster at G4G9. [below]
– Andy Liu
I will miss David greatly.
Here is a picture of a fraction of his collection, several of his written works as well as David and me together. I plan on making a Rubik’s cube in his memory I can submit later.
– Sydney Weaver
I must have first met David through Games and Puzzles magazine. When I came to write books myself, he was extremely generous in allowing me to use the resources of his collection of books which was vast even in those days., and was growing all the time. I especially remember that he had discovered that Italian companies were obliged by law to contribute to culture in some way, which they often did by publishing otherwise obscure books, probably in rather limited editions, of which David would acquire copies for his collection! (I have an idea that he understood Italian?!)I also recall that he was the only person I ever knew in t hose far off days who had his own photocopied at home. That’s a commonplace today but was rare in those days.His collection of data on puzzles and their origins and histories was a labour of love which he started, I believe, with the intention of producing a book, but it soon became too large and to the best of knowledge, always remained a database, which some enthusiast or academic researcher into games and puzzles will hopefully take in hand and preserve.He was a tremendous enthusiast, and a strong personality. Indeed, he was a personality, and that is no doubt how many people will remember him, as well as for his role in researching and popularising puzzles, on which he composed many himself.– David Wells
Memories of David Singmaster
In 2004 David travelled in China with us in search of the Three Hares, an image of rotating leporids sharing three ears at the centre of the design, whose earliest known occurrences are in Buddhist cave temples at Mogao, Dunhuang, on the edge of the Gobi Desert. For David, the chance to see these delicately painted sixth-century images of the hares or rabbits, which he had first come across printed in nineteenth-century popular puzzle books from Britain and the USA, was not to be missed. David was a most genial and generous travelling companion and game for anything – including a 10 km hike along a rough section of the Great Wall in sweltering conditions. A great bear of a man, his curiosity, his delight in discovery, and the warmth of his personality, were made manifest in myriad ways throughout our trip. He had that rare ability of combining seriousness of purpose with a lightness of touch that somehow transcended language and enabled him to share his ideas and boundless enthusiasms across cultures. As a metagrobologist, David was beyond measure; as a man he will be much missed.
– Sue Andrew, Chris Chapman & Tom Greeves, Devon UK
– Yu Junxiong & Zhou Weizhong, Beijing
– Wei Zhang & Peter Rasmussen, Berkeley, CA
I have known David probably since my first IPP in Culver City some 30 years ago and have met him many many times during IPPs ever since, and it has always been a pleasure and a privilege to be around him and to enjoy his wit and wisdom. Because of being a regular attendee of Peter Hajek’s End of the Year Party in London, David (and his wife Deborah) invited me to stay at his/their house as long as was needed, so in the course of the last 10 years I have spent many very pleasurable days with him and evenings with the two of them (talking books and puzzles whilst enjoying Deborah’s dinners). There were puzzles and books all over the place, but we (David and I) sometimes went out together to hunt for (more) books in charity shops and second-hand bookshops. Against the strict rules of Deborah’s (don’t buy too many books today, David), he always found interesting items (books or music and sometimes a puzzle) that he really couldn’t not buy … His health problems made it gradually more difficult to walk from shop A to shop B each year, but we could always have lunch or grab a snack whenever he needed a break. In the car but also strolling around, there was no stopping David from sharing his immense general knowledge and that of London in particular with me. Every fifth house or so we passed was genuinely interesting, as if a human encyclopedia were my passenger. When I went out on my own, he was always very interested to see what gems I found that day. To be in his house was a pleasure in itself, because the puzzles and books were everywhere (also the guest rooms were filled to the brim with books). I can only (again) say that it was an immense pleasure to be near him and that I will miss him dearly.
– Joop van der Vaart
I first met David and Deborah around 1983 when my wife’s friends took us to say hello to their friend who, like me, was interested in puzzles. That person turned out to be David Singmaster, the famous author of the first mathematical analysis of Rubik’s Cube and the inventor of a practically universal solver notation. The first meeting was memorable and set the tone for all the others over the next 40 years. David resembled a large jovial teddy bear, was hospitable and warm, and had an astounding encyclopaedic knowledge of everything I was interested in. Deborah was lovely and hospitable and considerate. I liked them both instantly.
Over the years I had great fun hosting David at our place, going with him over his collections, travelling together from meetings of puzzlers at Camden Lock, and sharing puzzle adventures at International Puzzle Parties and Gatherings for Gardner – meetings of people David called metagrobologists. Throughout this time, David continued to spread the joy of puzzling with his media work and his writings. It is provident and fortunate that he managed to edit his remarkable contributions to the history of recreational mathematics, that were spread over various newsletter and chapters, into a book form not long before his death. The two volumes of his Adventures in Recreational Mathematics were published in 2022 and will be cherished by puzzlers around the world for a long time to come.
David was a brilliant but also an exceptionally kind man. In 40 years of knowing him, I never heard him gossip or make fun of anyone. He had no problems with making fun of himself though – here is a picture we made of the renowned puzzle expert, Professor Singmaster, trying to figure out where the last cube goes.
It is some consolation to me that David’s life was full and productive, but David had a large presence and his departure is leaving a big gap. Goodbye David, I will miss you.
– Peter Hajek
This was indeed very sad news about David; he was a Goliath (no pun intended) in the puzzle world, particularly in the history of puzzles and the mathematics of puzzles, always willing to share his knowledge and his resources. I was privileged to meet David on several occasions, the most recent being at G4G13 in 2018, where he shared with me his The Three Hares book, and showed me the illustration of (and credit for) my Three Hares Puzzles in the book. Most memorably, the first time I met David was in 1998 in London when I BUMPED INTO HIM in a used bookstore! We had never met before, but he invited me to his home for dinner! I accepted, of course! I got to meet David’s wife, and we enjoyed a FINE pizza dinner from a pizza parlor in which David was part owner. I left David’s home with several books to add to my recreational mathematics library, including a cherished copy of Comptes-Rendus du Deixième Congrès International de Récréation Mathématique, which includes analysis of a 14-piece checkerboard puzzle. David was a big man, but much like a big teddy bear, kind, gentle, welcoming. I’m very sad that we have lost him. Memories of David will be incredibly fond for many.
– Michael Tanoff
The [above] clip with David, filmed in his studio in London at the Poly, is part of the movie Ars Combinatoria, part of my series of movies on Art and Math, 18 movies of 30minutes. The film Ars Combinatoria included the famous artist Max Bill in his Zurich Sudio, the mathematician Roberto Magri in Siena, the Italian Painter Luigi Verones in his atelier in Milan and paintings of Mondrian filmed in the Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag in Holland. The film was made in Italian, Franche, Spanish with RAI, State Italian Television, The cité des Sciences de la Villette in Paris and other institutions. I was the film maker, and the author of the script. My father, Luciano Emmer, a well known Italian filmmaker (Marcello Mastroianni made 5 films with my father) was the executive producer. Made in 1986.
– Michele Emmer
I will always remember his world-class reputation, his pioneering work with the Cube, and his always cheerful good humor and warmth. He always made me feel good and respected for my puzzle creations, and I was always happy to see him at the various events. The first time I met him, about 40 years ago, he with a number of other attendees at a puzzle gathering was sitting on the carpeted floor of a corridor outside a meeting room—there were no chairs—having a jolly time drinking and laughing and joking. Nob Yoshigahara was there, too, my first introduction to this exclusive assemblage of brilliant minds and down-to-earth bon vivants. A great loss, David Singmaster–an unforgettable individual, a true celebrity in our special community.
– Kate Jones
I send you this picture taken in January 2017 at the Recreational Mathematics Colloquium, in Lisbon. There is a backstory to this:
It was my first great conference with other mathematicians, I had just completed my bachelor’s degree in Mathematics. I knew almost no one and I had a bit to drink. In my slightly tipsy mood I stumble upon someone and I ask them to take a selfie with me.
Only after then I learned who the great David Singmaster was. After this picture, his wife Deborah (with whom I was able to have a lovely conversation the next day) told us that this was his first selfie ever.
I didn’t know David Singmaster well enough and I just managed to talk for a bit with him in that conference and in the next one in 2019. But I maybe it is worth documenting David Singmaster’s first selfie.
– Francisco Albuquerque Picado
David was a very good friend for nearly 50 years. He was, without doubt the world’s leading expert on the history of puzzles. His amazing research, that he made so freely available, will be a permanent beacon for anyone interested in the subject for many decades to come. I was very flattered that he permitted me to put so much on my Puzzle Museum website. We shared many interests from obscure exhibits for hands-on science centres to crazy books on how to tip the servants. Apart from the puzzling he was always so helpful and such fun. He will be greatly missed.
– James Dalgety
In 2011, we were doing Maths in the City on the streets in the centre of Dublin engaging the general public. A very distinguished man sporting a bushy white beard appeared from the crowd and began showing his own tricks (pictured here). A hushed whisper ran around the many international performers present: “look, it’s Singmaster”. We had only heard the name in connection with Rubik Cubes, and a reputed largest collection of puzzles in the world. It happened that David was a regular visitor to Ireland as his wife Deborah was Irish. The following year for Maths Week Ireland, we invited David over to give a talk on “A Historical Tour of Recreational Mathematics, Through Binary Recreations and Hamiltonian Circuits” at the famous Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.
He was delayed and rang from Heathrow to say he missed his flight. He was determined to come and give his talk and arrived in a taxi directly from the airport, only a few minutes late. He immediately commenced his presentation and won over the audience in minutes with his affable style and expert knowledge. After the talk he explained that he took ill in Heathrow airport and was advised not to travel. In the hotel the next morning at breakfast with other presenters and organisers, he had another turn. While we were on the verge of panic, he was his calm, cheerful self. At the Emergency Room, he produced puzzles and entertained both medical staff and patients. He also told them all to attend Maths Week Ireland events. We were relieved when Deborah arrived from London that evening and he began to recover.
It was a joy to meet David at G4Gs and other events over the years. At the recent European Recreational Mathematics Colloquium / G4G Europe he was mentioned by many. We send our sincere condolences Deborah and Jessica. He will be long and fondly remembered in the recreational mathematics community. As we say in Ireland – Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís – we’ll never see his likes again!
– Eoin Gill & Sheila Donegan
G4G Interviews with David:
Other Relevant Links:
1 thought on “Remembering David Singmaster”
I first met David in the spring of 1974. I was on a post doc. It seems that he and I had been working on the same area of graph eigenvalues, and we had independently made several common discoveries. I was next in England in 1977 at a conference in Cambridge. I went down to the college pub the first evening and found an excited group gathered around some attraction I could not see. I stood up on a chair to look over their heads, and saw David twisting and turning on a colorful cube. I was instantly enchanted by this object, and when the crowd finally thinned out, I approached him and asked where can I buy one of these things? He said it originated in Hungary, but he had bought his in Chechoslovakia. He generously said he could order one for me, and I immediately handed him $20 and gave him my address. A few weeks later I was one of the first people in the United States to have a Rubik’s Cube, nearly two years before they went on sale in the US. Without any guidance, it took me about 20 hours to solve it the first time.