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The jigsaw-puzzle was invented more than 200 years ago, initially for purely pedagogic reasons. In 1767, in order to familiarize his pupils with the geography of their country, the English teacher, John Spilsbury, cut up a map into several pieces, to be re-assembled again by his proteges.Spilsbury`s idea was successful and was soon copied by teachers teaching other subjects.

With time, the teaching aid turned into a popular sparetime activity. Pictures of idyllic scenes, landscapes and picturesque buildings were glued on wooden boards, which were then sawn into several pieces in order to re-assemble them again. This explains the English name "jigsaw" puzzle! The first puzzles were made of cedar-wood or mahagony. Later on soft woods were used and, finally, plywood.

Not until the mid-sixties of our century were puzzles made of cardboard produced which are as good a quality as expensive wooden puzzles. This new production method suddenly made it possible to produce puzzles everybody could afford. Many different puzzles began to appear and started what could be called a real puzzle boom. Nowadays millions of pictures are punched into small pieces every year in order to be reassembled again by patient puzzle players.

Detailed Recent History:
Although puzzle sales flagged somewhat in the early 1900s, by the late 1920s and the onset of the Great Depression, there was resurgence in popularity. In 1933, sales peaked at an astounding 10 million per week. With lack of steady employment, people turned to puzzles and other forms of home entertainment instead of outside entertainment like restaurants and nightclubs. Many unemployed architects, carpenters, and other craftsmen made their own jigsaw puzzles for sale or rent. As the puzzle craze of the 1930s continued, drugstores and circulating libraries offered puzzles for rent; they charged 3-10 cents per day depending on the size of the puzzle. For a brief time in 1932, retail stores offered free puzzles with the purchase of toothbrushes, flashlights, and hundreds of other products.

By the time World War II ended in the late 1940s, the sales of wooden jigsaw puzzles went into a sharp decline. This was because rising wages increased the labor costs of hand cutting the pieces. At the same time, improvements in the lithography and die cutting (processes which had been introduced decades earlier) made the cardboard puzzles more attractive. The Springbok Company, one major manufacturer, began making puzzles based on high quality reproductions of fine works of art. Hundreds of thousands of Americans struggled to assemble Jackson Pollock's "Convergence," when Springbok introduced it in 1965. By the late 1960s, wooden puzzles had practically vanished. However in the mid-1970s, Stave Puzzles was founded on the belief that there was still an audience for high quality wooden puzzles. Their success has proven them correct, and in the last 25 years, a number of small custom wooden puzzle manufactures have helped re-popularize wooden puzzles.

Making Of...
Nearly 2,000 hours are required to produce a puzzle from start to finish. This process typically stretches over about 12 months. The key steps include printing and laminating the artwork, cutting the pieces, and packaging the finished puzzle.

Printing
1. The first step is to select the artwork and print it in a suitable format. The most common process used to print artwork for puzzles is lithography. Lithography uses a plate, which is specially treated to absorb either water or oil. The portion of the plate, which is not to be printed, is wetted with water while the printable portions are coated with grease, which attracts the oil-based ink. When ink is applied to the plate, it sticks only to the grease coated image. As the plate is brought into contact with paper, the image is transferred. Many puzzle pictures may be prepared on the same lithography sheet to save paper and minimize press time. After printing, the litho sheets are laminated onto 0.087 in (0.22 cm) thick chipboard. They are allowed to dry for several days before they are sent to die cut press.

Cutting
2. Puzzle pieces today are mass-produced in a process known as die cutting. A die cutting press uses a sharp, flat metal ribbon to stamp out the individual pieces. The artist's drawings of the cuts are sent to rule-bend experts who bend razor sharp steel rules into the shape of the puzzle pieces. For a 500-piece puzzle of average complexity, it may take 400 hours to make a die. Three or four such dies maybe made for puzzles of the same size and shape. The metal rules are then pounded into a wood mounted die. One side of this metal ribbon is fixed in a wooden block. Whep this block is pressed with sufficient force onto the softer cardboard backing, the backing surface is cut into the desired shape. When the laminated artwork is sent through the die cut press, the die is forced down under high pressure. When the die is extracted, the artwork and underlying cardboard are left with cuts in the shape of die.

Packaging
3. After leaving the die press, the sheets go through a breaker, which separates the puzzle pieces and drops them into their package, typically a cardboard box. Today, it is standard for the box to feature a picture of the completed puzzle as a guide. Manufacturers began offering this feature in the mid-1930s. These boxes then go through final packaging, shrink wrapping, etc. Finally, they are shipped to retail stores.

The Future
While the artwork used in puzzles is constantly changing to keep pace with current consumer tastes, there have been few manufacturing innovations in recent years. Nonetheless, there are areas from which future developments are likely to come. As noted above, quality customized wooden puzzles are gaining in popularity. One company, i.C. Ayer & Co. has developed novel computer-controlled water jets to automate the cutting of wooden puzzles. One new type of puzzle takes two-dimensional jigsaw puzzles and transforms them into three-dimensional puzzles. These puzzles feature die cut pieces which, when assembled, form a three dimensional sculpture. This approach is so novel it has been granted a United States patent (U.S. Patent # 5251900). Lastly, jigsaw puzzles of the future may be electronic without either cardboard or wood. These virtual puzzles are constructed by computer, and exist only on monitor screens. Special software allows puzzle aficionados to continue to enjoy the challenge of reassembling the scrambled pictures without the need for a physical construct.

Sources: Wikipedia, Wikimedia, Piatnik, Answers.com