California Dreamin!


Harry Nelson

In 2006, I met Harry and Claire Nelson at my first International Puzzle Party in Boston.  I was thrilled to meet Harry as he’s a legend in the puzzle world.  His accomplishments are numerous in the areas of puzzles, mathematics, computers and chess.  Harry was also the editor of the Journal of Recreational Mathematics for 5 years and continues on their editorial board.  There is a very interesting interview with Harry on his accomplishments in the computer field.  There is also an interesting video of Harry and his involvement with chess and computers.

Now that I am doing Inventor Relations for ThinkFun, Harry invited me to his home to view other ideas.  Since I was in CA for the NCTM Conference (I mentioned NCTM in my last post) I took a flight to San Francisco to see Harry and his wonderful wife Claire.  Harry planned a Puzzle Party in my honor while I was there so that I could meet with other local inventors!

Harry's Giant Burr

One of the first things you see when arriving at Harry and Claire’s home is this giant burr outside their front door.  I knew I was entering the home of a puzzle lover when I saw that!  It is a Bill Cutler design and made by Harry himself.  It is fully functional with one warning from Harry, “Careful you don’t drop it on your foot.  It hurts.  I’ve done this many times.”

Harry and Claire are such genuinely kind and caring people.  They welcomed me into their home so graciously and made me feel right at home.  I loved talking puzzles with Harry and I loved talking life with Claire.  I would sit at the dining room table with Harry and try to solve puzzles he’d give me.  He’d tutor me through them and it was wonderful to spend time with him this way.  I also really enjoyed sitting at the kitchen table with Claire talking about our lives and our families.  Not only is she the heartbeat of this family, she’s also been instrumental in many philanthropic initiatives including the creation of a local woman’s shelter.  I have some really special memories from our time spent together.

Harry's Painting

One of the first things I noticed when first touring their beautiful home is an incredible painting that hangs in their great room.  Claire commissioned a local artist to do this painting for Harry.  They hung it just days before my visit.  It illustrates many of the important things that Harry has been involved in.  Starting at the top left corner and going clockwise:

  1. Stormy Seas – this is a ThinkFun puzzle that was invented by Harry Nelson and Hiroshi Yammamoto.  It is no longer for sale but is a wonderful puzzle.  I was happy to purchase a booster card deck from Harry for this puzzle at a past IPP.
  2. Rush Hour – Harry was instrumental in linking the inventor Nob Yoshigahara to ThinkFun.  Rush Hour is ThinkFun’s most popular and successful puzzle.  Many people recognize the name Rush Hour before they recognize the name ThinkFun!
  3. Using a Cray supercomputer, Harry and Cray employee David Slowinski discovered the largest prime number known at that time.  On April 8, 1979, they found the 27th Mersenne prime: 244497 – 1.
  4. Harry was also instrumental in bringing the Four Piece Jigsaw to ThinkFun.  Harry met the inventor, Ken Walker, in his local neighbourhood and connected him with ThinkFun.  I purchased an 8 piece Jigsaw Puzzle of Ken Walker’s from Harry at a past IPP.   
  5. Harry’s son, Scott, invented ThinkFun’s Four Cube Puzzle when Scott was just nine years old.  This puzzle is based on the MacMahon squares.
  6. In 1983, Harry and two other Cray employees, won the World Computer Chess Championship, and successfully defended its title in 1986.
  7. Another puzzle that Harry’s son Scott invented was On The Level by Magnif.  It is also based on the MacMahon squares.

Harry's Puzzle Challenge

On Sunday, April 25th, Harry and Claire hosted the puzzle party.  There is a CA group of puzzlers that meet throughout the year to share their puzzles.  I was thrilled that I could be a part of this meeting. 

Harry had put together a puzzle retrospective of ten puzzles for the party; approximately one from each decade of his life.  He challenged me with them the day before and I enjoyed going through them.  Mostly I enjoyed spending time with Harry as he helped me with some of them.  I marvel at the way that creatives (like Harry) brains work.  I liked how Harry had incorporated Treasure Quest in this set of puzzles.  Harry is the inventor of ThinkFun’s Treasure Quest which is a game based on the transport puzzle called Sokoban.

Puzzle Party

Puzzle Party

Twisty Puzzle Inventor

I had the pleasure of meeting all three of Harry’s sons and their families at the party.  Scott, Bron and Craig were all in attendance.  They loved playing puzzles just like their dad.  I enjoyed meeting them as their parents told me all about them!  An extremely smart and loving family! 

It was great to see a lot of IPP friends at Harry’s as well as to meet some new puzzle lovers and inventors.  There was a large group of people very interested in Twisty Puzzles.  A twisty puzzle consists of a set of pieces which can be manipulated into different combinations by a group of operations.  The most commonly known twisty puzzle is the Rubik’s Cube.  There was one new puzzler who attended that has made incredible twisty puzzles all by hand!  His work was incredible.

Nicholas Cravotta, Scott Kim and I

I was thrilled to see again Nicholas Cravotta inventor of Dizios, CrossWise and Zenith by MindWare.  I met Nicholas at the New York Toy Fair and also the Gathering 4 Gardner this year.  He’s a very smart inventor and I hope we’ll work together one day.

I also was pleased to touch base with Scott Kim.  Scott Kim invented ThinkFun’s Sudoku 5X5 and 4X4 games.  He also helped develop the challenges for our Railroad Rush Hour.  He was involved with the development of video games like Bejeweled and Guitar Hero.  Scott is such a talented individual.    He’s a world expert in ambigrams.  The amazing thing is that you can give him words and he can write out them out as an ambigram on the spot!  For example, one of the things I treasure is when my son and I sat with him at an IPP banquet.  He did both our names such that you could read them both forwards and backwards.  Very cool keepsake!

Me and Bill Darrah

Stan Isaacs

Part of Harry's Puzzle Collection

Nick and others puzzling!


Harry, Me and Claire

I had a great visit with Harry and Claire and had a fantastic time at the puzzle party.  There were over 30 people who came out to enjoy puzzles and fellowship.  The wonderful thing is that we all love puzzles.  I was so happy to spend time with them.  Many were my friends from the IPP community as well as I met many new people. 

It was really nice that Harry and Claire hosted this event during my visit.  Harry said, “Well of course, you need to meet the inventors and they want to meet you.”  I feel really blessed when people as legendary as Harry and Claire Nelson invite me into their home, invite others into their home to meet me, make me feel so welcome and most memorably for me, just sit and spend time with me.  Thank you Harry and Claire, I hope to come again!

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