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Piet Hein (1905-1996)

Piet Hein (1905-1996) was a Danish poet, writer, designer, inventor, and mathematician. He was born in Copenhagen in 1905, and he is one of the most internationally known Danes from the 20th century.   Piet Hein used the pseudonym of Kumbel, Kumbel Kumbell (which means tombstone).

Hein’s achievements are so varied that he may never be remembered as a very talented designer. However, during his career he would create many beautiful pieces of furniture, lighting and other household pieces. Piet Hein's love of mathematics was always a driving force in his designs. A keen eye would easily be able to spot a work by Piet Hein. His designs always possessed clear mathematical symmetry and very specific geometrical shapes.    

Piet Hein came from a well to do, highly educated family. His father was an engineer and his mother was an ophthalmologist. Artists and scientists would regularly come to visit his parents at his childhood home in Copenhagen (København), and there is no doubt that these visitors had a strong influence on the young Peit Hein. Some of the visitors included the world famous Danish Physicist Niels Bohr, who would later work on the ‘Manhattan Project’. Hein and Bohr would carry on a long time friendship. Another regular visitor was the world famous author Karen Blixen. Blixen is the author of ‘Out of Africa’, (Den Afrikanske Farm), and she happened to be Hein’s mother’s cousin.  

At 19, Hein left the mathematical school at the Metropolitan College in Copenhagen to study at a private arts school. Hein was not enrolled at the private arts school for long. He soon left for Sweden to attend the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. Once again Hein did not complete his studies. He decided to return to Denmark to study philosophy and theoretical physics at the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of Copenhagen (Københavns Universitet) (which would later be called ‘The Niels Bohr Institute’);  and the Technical University of Denmark (Danmarks Tekniske Universitet). Once again Hein did not complete his education. Hein’s various educational endeavours could very well explain why he became such a multi-talented individual. Not once did he fail to complete his education because he wasn’t doing well in his studies. He simply wanted to try something new.  

As a poet, Piet Hein invented a special type of poem called ‘Grook’ (Gruk). Grooks are essentially short, wise sayings (maxims) in poetry form. They often combine pleasure and sadness. They are filled with irony and they are often very satirical in nature. They often rhyme and they sometimes have drawings to drive home the point. Grooks (Gruks) are uniquely Danish, and they are all but impenetrable to the non-Dane.

While Hein first invented grook poems in the 1930’s, it wasn’t until shortly after the Nazi Occupation in April 1940 that they began to receive widespread popularity. The reason for this was that Hein’s poems started to appear in the daily newspaper, ‘Politiken’. The poems Hein submitted to the newspaper were meant to be spirit-building, and they often held slightly coded messages advocating passive resistance to the Nazi occupiers. The fact that these poems found their way passed the heavy scrutiny of the Nazi censors is evidence enough that grooks are almost impossible for a Non-Dane to make out. Yet Hein still would not take any chances and he submitted his grooks under the pseudonym, ‘Kumbel Kumbell’; which means ‘tombstone’. 

Hein would go on to write over 7000 of these grooks in his lifetime. The majority of his grooks were written in Danish, however some were written in English. Many of the grooks written in Danish have been translated to English. Hein’s grooks have been assembled and published and they together they comprise more than 20 volumes.

Examples of Grooks (Gruks)

Men, said the Devil,
are good to their brothers:
they don’t want to mend
their own ways, but each other's.

Losing one glove
is certainly painful,
but nothing
compared to the pain,
of losing one,
throwing away the other,
and finding
the first one again.

As a mathematician Piet Hein was occupied by mathematical games. In 1942, he invented the game of Hex which he originally called, ‘Polygon’. While Hex is the best known game he invented, he also invented many other games such as, Tangloids, Morra, Polytaire, TacTix, Nimbi, Qrazy Qube, Pyramystery, and the Soma cube.

Hein’s achievements in mathematics go well beyond his passion for mathematical based board games. In 1959 Piet Hein decided to find a new physical form, this would be quite an achievement, considering that most of our basic mathematics are several thousand years old. Hein wanted to find a way to meld the contrasting shapes of a rectangular a circle. His resulting creation was the ‘super ellipse’ or ‘super egg’. This may not sound like much of an achievement; however you must remember that a ‘super ellipse’ is based on a mathematical equation. It is not simply rounding the corners of a rectangle.

The shape of a ‘super egg’ was first used on a large scale when Piet Hein was asked to come up with a solution to a very complex traffic problem in downtown Stockholm. The ‘super ellipse’ solved the problem by allowing two major highways to meet in a huge roundabout, while maintaining the integrity of the downtown area of Stockholm. The formula was calculated on a “datamat” which was a very early precursor to the computers we have today. 

The unique shape has since been used in a number of building projects around the world. It has been used in residential areas, and multiple athletic stadiums; such as the Olympic stadium in Mexico City, and the DGI-city swimming pool in Copenhagen. Hein has also used his ‘super ellipse’ on a much smaller scale. He has used it as the shape of tables, bowls and door handles.

Aside from Piet Hein’s vast achievement he was also a long time friend of the physicist Niels Bohr. Through Bohr he managed to make the acquaintance of Albert Einstein and Charles Chaplin just after the Second World War. A close friendship developed between this group of people, and Hein wrote several essays describing how these people inspired him.


  • Alexander Graham Bell Silver Bell (1968) 
  • Emil Aarestrup medal (1969)
  • Honorary Fellow of the Student Association (1970)
  • Industrial Design Prize (1971)
  • Die gute Industrieform (1971)
  • Honorary doctorate at Yale University (1972)
  • Huitième Salon International du Lumiaire (1973)
  • Year honors Craftsman (1975)
  • Storm P Prize (1978)
  • Honorary Fellow of the Royal Copenhagen Knife Company (1978)
  • Honorary Fellow of the Danish Brotherhood (1978)
  • Nobel Lecturer (1983)
  • Medal Ingenio et Arti (1985)
  • Danish Design Council year price (1989)
  • Tietgen medal (1990)
  • Doctor of honours, University of Odense (1991)

LastUpdate: 2016-06-17 13:29:34