Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Changing Seats,” Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, vol. 19, no. 17, April 22, 1840, p. 4, col. 1 and vol. 4, no. 19, May 6, 1840, p. 2, col. 2


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[April 22, 1840]

[page 4, column 1:]

CHANGING SEATS. — The following problem may be found in many of our elementary books of arithmetic: A club of eight persons agreed to dine together every day as long as they could sit down to the table differently arranged. How many dinners would be necessary to complete this arrangement? — Answer — by the well known rule of permutation, it will be found that the whole party must live 110 years and 170 days, and must eat 362,880 dinners. So rapidly does the sum roll up on this process that if the party had consisted of one more person, they would have had 443,520 dinners to get through; and if ten persons were to enter into the compact, it would be necessary for them, in order to complete their task, to live long enough to devour 3,628,800 dinners.

 


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[May 6, 1840]

[page 2, column 2:]

CHANGING SEATS.

The correspondent who writes us in regard to a permutation puzzle which appeared in the Messenger a few weeks ago, is informed that an error occurred in the printed article by the omission of a line. The answer is as he gives it.

 


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Notes:

These items were first attributed to Poe by Clarence S. Brigham in Edgar Allan Poe’s Contributions to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, 1943, pp. 74-75 and 80-81, but additional information makes it difficult to include this item in the Poe canon, even as a entry of very slight importance, except as a selection by Poe, with only the second comment perhaps actually being of his own composing.

Brigham includes these two items chiefly because he presumes that Poe was responsible for most of the puzzles printed in the newspaper. Unknown to Brigham, however, this particular puzzle was merely reprinted, probably from the Dublin General Advertiser, in an issue of November 1837 — although very likely taken from some intermediary reprinting, such as the Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction (London) for December 2, 1837 (vol. XXX, Whole no. 866, p. 376, col. 2), which credits the Dublin General Advertiser and gives the identical text as it appears in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, with the same title and with only a few minor changes in punctuation. What line might have been omitted is uncertain, but it appears that it was also dropped from the original source. The puzzle was indeed a popular one. The identical text was reprinted as a filler item in Johnston’s Detroit Directory and Business Advertiser for 1853-54 (p. 27). The Boys Own Book: A Complete Encyclopeida of all the Diversions, Athletic, Scientific, and Recreative of Boyhood and Youth (London: Vizetelley, Branson, & Co.), 1829 (and reprinted several times as late as 1885), under a general section of “Arithmetical Amusements” and the specific title of “The Dinner Part” gives essentially the same puzzle, but with only seven participants (p. 238). (In this form, with seven dinners, the entry was reprinted in Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal, vol. 1, no. 31, September 1, 1832, p. 248, col. 3). More than fifty years later, the Pall Mall Magazine (London), vol. 20, no. 2, February 1900, in an article on “Lotteries, Luck, Chance, and Gaming Systems: Part III — Chance” provides a much more expansive treatment of the puzzle, beginning with a club of three persons and ending with ten.

The earliest form of the puzzle as it appears in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger seems to be from the Kaleidoscope; or, Literary and Scientific Mirror (Liverpool), vol. IX, whole no. 448, January 27, 1829, p. 249, col. 2, which includes a final line that seems to be lacking the actual numbers needed for it to make sense. There, the text appears as follows:

CHANGING SEATS.

The following problem may be found in many of our elementary books of arithmetic:

A club of eight persons agreed to dine together every day, as long as they could sit down to [[the]] table differently arranged. How many dinners would be necessary to complete such an arrangement? — Answer. By the well-known rule of permutation, it will be found that the whole party must live 110 years and 170 days, and must eat 362,880 dinners. So rapidly does the sum roll up on this process, that, if the party had consisted of one more person, they would have had 443,520 dinners to get through; and if ten persons were to enter into the compact, it would be necessary for them, in order to complete their task, to live long enough to devour 3,628,800 dinners. If the party had been twelve, it would be requisite to sit in a different order every day to remain on earth long enough to swallow dinners.

In this form, the item appears in Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal (London), vol. 5, whole no. 222, April 30, 1836, p. 112, col. 3, omitting the final sentence, and credited only to an unnamed newspaper. It appears that this puzzle had been circulating through various reprints, with only slight changes, for more than two decades before it was picked up by Alexander’s Weekly Messenger.

 

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[S:1 - AWM, 1840] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Misc. - Changing Seats