Quarter Wit, Quarter Wisdom: Solving the Hourglass Puzzle

Quarter Wit, Quarter WisdomLet’s continue our puzzles discussion today with another puzzle type – time measurement using an hourglass. (Before you continue reading this article, check out our posts on how to solve pouring water puzzles and weighing and balancing puzzles)

First, understand what an hourglass is – it is a mechanical device used to measure the passage of time. It is comprised of two glass bulbs connected vertically by a narrow neck that allows a regulated trickle of sand from the upper bulb to fall into the lower one. The sand also takes a fixed amount of time to fall from the upper bulb to the lower bulb. Hourglasses may be reused indefinitely by inverting the bulbs once the upper bulb is empty.

This is what they look like:

Say a 10-minute hourglass will let us measure time in intervals of 10 minutes. This means all of the sand will flow from the upper bulb to the lower bulb in exactly 10 minutes. We can then flip the hourglass over – now sand will start flowing again for the next 10 minutes, and so on. We cannot measure, say, 12 minutes using just a 10-minute hourglass, but we can measure more time intervals when we have two hourglasses of different times. Let’s look at this practice problem to see how this can be done:

A teacher of mathematics used an unconventional method to measure a 15-minute time limit for a test. He used a 7-minute and an 11-minute hourglass. During the whole time, he turned the hourglasses only 3 times (turning both hourglasses at once counts as one flip). Explain how the teacher measured out 15 minutes.

Here, we have a 7-minute hourglass and an 11-minute hourglass. This means we can measure time in intervals of 7 minutes as well as in intervals of 11 minutes. But consider this: if both hourglasses start together, at the end of 7 minutes, we will have 4 minutes of sand leftover in the top bulb of the 11-minute hourglass. So we can also measure out 4 minutes of time.

Furthermore, if we flip the 7-minute hourglass over at this time and let it flow for that 4 minutes (until the sand runs out of the top bulb of the 11-minute hourglass), we will have 3 minutes’ worth of sand leftover in the 7-minute hourglass. Hence, we can measure a 3 minute time interval, too, and so on…

Now, let’s see how we can measure out 15 minutes of time using our 7-minute and 11-minute hourglasses.

First, start both hourglasses at the same time. After the top bulb of the 7-minute hourglass is empty, flip it over again. At this time, we have 4 minutes’ worth of sand still in the top bulb of the 11-minute hourglass. When the top bulb of the 11-minute hourglass is empty, the bottom bulb of 7-minute hourglass will have 4 minutes’ worth of sand in it. At this point, 11 minutes have passed

Now simply flip the 7-minute hourglass over again and wait until the sand runs to the bottom bulb, which will be in 4 minutes.

This is how we measure out 11 + 4 = 15 minutes of time using a 7-minute hourglass and an 11-minute hourglass.

Let’s look at another problem:

Having two hourglasses, a 7-minute one and a 4-minute one, how can you correctly time out 9 minutes?

Now we need to measure out 9 minutes using a 7-minute hourglass and a 4-minute hourglass. Like we did for the last problem, begin by starting both hourglasses at the same time. After 4 minutes pass, all of the sand in the 4-minute hourglass will be in the lower bulb. Now flip this 4-minute hourglass back over again. In the 7-minute hourglass, there will be 3 minutes’ worth of sand still in the upper bulb.

After 3 minutes, all of the sand from the 7-minute hourglass will be in the lower bulb and 1 minute’s worth of sand will be in the upper bulb of the 4-minute hourglass.

This is when we will start our 9-minute interval.

The 1 minute’s worth of sand will flow to the bottom bulb of the 4-minute hourglass. Then we just need to flip the 4-minute hourglass over and let all of the sand flow out (which will take 4 minutes), and then flip the hourglass over to let all of the sand flow out again (which will take another 4 minutes).

In all, we have measured out a 1 + 4 + 4 = 9-minute interval, which is what the problem has asked us to find.

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Karishma, a Computer Engineer with a keen interest in alternative Mathematical approaches, has mentored students in the continents of Asia, Europe and North America. She teaches the GMAT for Veritas Prep and regularly participates in content development projects such as this blog!