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I love all kinds of puzzles, but the mystery of an odd-looking gadget threatened to stump my inner sleuth

BOB HAMBLY/The Globe and Mail

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This – this thing was sitting on my desk when I came in to work.

A very strange contraption – a gadget, a gizmo! I'd never seen anything like it before.

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It was about the size of an old typewriter, made of metal, mounted on a wooden base. Protruding from the right side was a handle, much like the arm you would find on a slot machine. The overall patina told me it was old, maybe from the thirties or forties. I was intrigued.

While I was out of the office, Dave, a contractor friend of mine, had dropped it off.

"If anyone will appreciate this, Bob will," he told a fellow employee. "See if he can figure out what it is."

I love puzzles. Crosswords, cryptics, riddles, sudoku, kenken – I do them on a regular basis. But this one was different. This one was a doozy. I had absolutely no clue as to what it might be.

I immediately reached for the handle and pulled it down. Magically, large triangular metal teeth, 16 of them, folded open as a serrated bar hovering above them descended directly between them. I repeated this several times – each time more slowly than the last – closely examining the mechanics.

I found its complex movement to be oddly entertaining. I was actually growing to like this thing.

Attached to the contraption I noticed that there was a small, metal plate with the following information:

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Owned and Leased By

Packaging Equipment


The Diamond Match Company

589 East Illinois St. Chicago 11, Ill.

The "Packaging" part helped me focus my thinking in a certain direction, but the mention of a "Match Company" threw me for a loop. There were no stains on either the metal or the wood, so I eliminated the idea that this involved the packaging of food. The thick metal pieces had rounded edges, so I couldn't imagine what this could have to do with tiny, fragile matches.

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Every time I tried to turn my attention to work my thoughts drifted back to this enigma, so I moved the contraption to another area of my office. "Out of sight, out of mind," they say.

No such luck, I was hooked. I thought about it most of that day and into the evening. I lay awake in bed that night, tossing and turning, trying to find the answer. I got nowhere. This thing was getting the better of me.

Even though I really wanted to solve this by myself, I went looking for help the next morning. Puzzle solvers out there will know how difficult it is to admit this. Some people were mildly interested, but most couldn't be bothered.

One person, after seeing the contraption, took a piece of paper and placed it atop the teeth, then pulled down on the handle. This was encouraging. But when the paper got crushed, so did the experimenter's enthusiasm. Shortly afterward, I heard someone yell from down the hall that they had figured it out. What? That fast? Part of me wanted to know and part didn't. Before I knew it, they'd blurted out the answer.

The story goes that this person keyed the words from the metal plate into Google and a listing for an identical object appeared on eBay. To their credit, they did find out what it was. But there was no brain racking, no testing, no restless nights. Google? Really?

We live in a world of instant everything – instant food, instant printing, instant messaging and instant replays. We seem to be addicted to instant answers, so we Google-search in meetings, in lineups at the store – even at dinner parties.

We've become an impatient lot. Somewhere along the way we have forgotten to think for ourselves, or at least start to find answers by thinking for ourselves. Part of the thought process is allowing time for ideas to percolate, to ruminate, to take shape. If we immediately search for answers on the World Wide Web are we gradually weakening our ability to use our own, built-in search-engines? Studies say there are many benefits to exercising our brains. People need to start working out again.

Now, don't get me wrong. I like the Internet as much as the next person – it's astounding the amount of information that is at your fingertips. And it is fast. I just think it's become the default for problem solving.

Which brings me back to the contraption. Spoiler alert. It turns out that it's a device used by farmers to fold flat, die-cut egg cartons into their final shape. Not the egg cartons that are moulded from paper pulp, but the ones that predated them – the ones with hard-edged cardboard walls.

Several weeks later, I took the device to my brother John, a woodworker, so he could build it a new wooden base. I purposely didn't tell him what it was, in case he was game to solve the puzzle.

His response was remarkable. After looking at it for a while he said, "I think it folds cardboard." Then, "It folds it into a box."

I was flabbergasted. "Any idea what kind of box?" I said. He thought for a moment. "An egg carton."

It took him a total of 40 seconds! He never once touched the contraption, never pulled the handle, and there was no Googling involved.

So much for thinking that I was a good puzzle solver. More exercise is what I need.

Bob Hambly lives in Toronto.

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