A Brief History of Sudoku

(Last Updated On: June 11, 2019)
History of Sudoku

Whether you’re interested in testing your brain power, or just want something to help pass the time, Sudoku has become a staple of many people’s routines over the years.

For those who aren’t familiar with Sudoku, each puzzle has a grid of 81 squares, divided into nine blocks of nine squares each. Some squares have a figure, others are left blank. Your goal is to fill in the grid, so that each row and column, and each smaller 3×3 grid, all have the numbers 1-9 in them.

The simplicity and accessibility of Sudoku puzzles is part of what makes them so fun. However, while immensely popular, a lot of people don’t really understand exactly where they came from, or what made them so popular seemingly out of the blue. So here’s a little history of Sudoku to help clear things up.

Early Origins of Sudoku

The Sudoku name may conjure images of the Far East and some secret game or puzzle, but the actual origins are a bit less exotic.

The closest thing we can consider to be the origin of Sudoku comes from Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, all the way back in 1783. His invention “Latin Squares” consisted of a grid where every number or symbol appeared once in each column. At the time, this was more of a project rather than a puzzle, and the recreation potential of Sudoku wouldn’t be realized until some time later.

The next time we see an early variant of Sudoku is in France in the late 19th century. Various French magazine publishers began experimenting with removing numbers from “Magic Squares”. Some of these were math-based instead of logic-based puzzles, meaning they weren’t really true Sudokus. Regardless, we can see how the idea of arranging numbers via a pattern in a grid, then removing some to become a puzzle, came to be.

Related post: The History of Crossword Puzzles

The History of Sudoku

But how does something originally created in the late 19th century become a worldwide phenomenon? The first example we see of modern Sudoku becoming a thing is in New York City in the 1970s. Dell Pencil Puzzles and Word Games had been putting out crosswords and other puzzles for decades to this point, and the first record they have of putting out a Sudoku puzzle is in 1979, under the name “Number Place” (they still use this name today).

There’s a bit of a question on who exactly came up with the idea, but the common belief is that Howard Garns, a retired architect who passed away before Sudoku became a global phenomenon, was the one. Garns was a freelance puzzle maker at the time “Number Place” got started, and while he was wasn’t credited on those initial puzzles, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that he was working on the idea at the time.

Sudoku Today

At this point, though, we still have a few questions to answer: Where did the name Sudoku come from, and how did it get so popular? For the first answer, we finally get to understand the Japanese connection.

Dell and other puzzle magazines had always traditionally done well in Japan. In the mid-80s, the game first started to catch on in Japan, under the name “Sudoku”. Sudoku is a shortened version of the expression “Sūji wa dokushin ni kagiru” meaning, “the digits are limited to one occurrence.”

Part of the appeal here is not just due to how fun Sudoku is, but also the nature of the Japanese language. Things like crossword puzzles don’t really translate well into Japanese, so number-based puzzles are more popular and accessible.

Sudoku would go on to achieve viral fame in the West around 2004. Following its “rediscovery” by a New Zealand judge in 1997 in a Japanese bookstore, The Times of London and The Conway Daily Sun (New Hampshire) both began producing Sudoku puzzles in their weekly newspapers. Flash forward to today, and we have a true global phenomenon, complete with its own championships.

Interested in taking your part in some of this history? Sporcle has a variety of different Sudoku puzzles for you to test your brain power with today.