A photo of David Singmaster at a conference, looking curiously at something on a table. Richard Guy in the background on the left.

Remembering David Singmaster

Father of cubing theory, notation, and layer-by-layer

We lost the legendary David Singmaster in February 2023. As a self-described "metagrobologist", he studied and catalogued many puzzles in his life. Singmaster was instrumental in early cubing, publishing:

An excerpt of the linked notes, with a diagram of a Rubik's Cube on the, left labeled with e.g. nine copies of the letter U on the upper face.

Notes On Rubik's 'Magic Cube' (1979), where he defined the face names for 3x3x3 moves and pieces that form the basis of modern puzzle terminology and notation.

An excerpt of the linked notes, with a diagram of a Rubik's Cube on the, left labeled with e.g. nine copies of the letter U on the upper face.

A Step by Step Solution of Rubik's "Magic Cube" (1980), the oldest known publication of a layer-based method starting with cross.

An image of the Cubic Circulars, from Jaap Scherphuis's page.

The Cubic Circular (1981-1985), where he reported on early speedcubing competitions and the first World Championship, extensive cube math, God's algorithm, new puzzles, and more.

Singmaster was active and jovial into his 80's, traveling, making friends, and writing about puzzles. He was a "judge" on the jury panel in the 1982 World Championship, and also competed officially in 2012. It's easy to take our modern speedcubing community for granted, but he effectively maintained one the first international cubing communities and it's likely that we wouldn't be quite the same without him.

A silly picture of David Singmaster sticking out his tongue, standing next to Ernő Rubik.

A silly picture of David Singmaster sticking out his tongue (standing next to Ernő Rubik).


Gathering 4 Gardner has posted two interviews with Singmaster on Youtube, including one about the early days of Rubik's Cube:

Memories of Singmaster

I had the privilege of visiting his home in London twenty or so years ago. I don't remember exactly how that happened - I think I first met him at a puzzle meet in London. What I do remember is his joy at showing me his puzzles, and his large collection of books on recreational mathematics. I regret that I only took one picture of the visit on my (analog) camera, namely a picture of his puzzle collection. I will always be indebted to him for inviting me to the Gathering for Gardner in 2004, which I have attended ever since.

Jaap Scherphuis, on speedsolving.com

Little did I know what an eye-opening adventure awaited me. Think of Charlie Bucket on his first visit to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, and then just replace sweets with puzzles. Thousands of them. Every shelf, in every room, was packed with puzzling curiosities of every shape and size.

Not only was David an incredible collector of puzzles and puzzle history, he was only too happy to share his knowledge. He knew almost everything there was to know about puzzles – and when he didn’t, he always knew which book to look in.

— Rob Eastaway, David Singmaster RIP

A picture of David Singmaster (second from the left), with Neil Calkin, Ernő Rubik, and Tom Rokicki.
Picture contributed by Tom Rokicki.

I first encountered David Singmaster through his articles about the Rubiks Cube in the late 1970’s and was delighted to meet him in person at Mathsjam annual conferences when he attended and I was there between 2012 and 2019. Hearing him share his love of puzzles and games was a delight. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him and particularly recreational mathematics enthusiasts including all in the Mathsjam community.

— John Read

A picture of David Singmaster (middle), looking together with Lucas Garron at Ernő Rubik, who is holding a replica of Rubik's original prototype by Tony Fisher.

A picture of David Singmaster sitting in the floor, playing with a 4x4x4 cube.

I first met David through his Mathematical Gazetteer of the British Isles, published through the British Society for the History of Mathematics. I was investigating the history of maths in my home town Nottingham and David had a note about a calculating machine factory at an address that doesn't exist on modern maps. I emailed and he gave me some tips for tracking this down - and I found it with his help! Later Samuel Hansen and I gave a talk at the University of Greenwich and David attended. After the talk a group of us went to the Royal Observatory. I remember we didn't need to read any of the signs, David treated us to a running commentary of many interesting stories about the objects in the museum. Later I met him many times at the Maths Jam annual gathering. I remember how excited he was when I told him I had gained approval to run an undergraduate module on recreational mathematics - his news in return was that he was preparing his collected works, later published as his 'Adventures in Recreational Mathematics'. He was a positive force in both the history of maths and recreational maths worlds and I'll miss him.

— Peter Rowlett

5 men stood around a metal line.

A picture of David Singmaster (left) at the Greenwich Meridian in 2010 with (left to right) James Clare, Samuel Hansen, Peter Rowlett and Mitch Keller. (Picture by Tony Mann.)