Water pouring puzzle

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Water pouring puzzles (also called water jug problems or measuring puzzles) are a class of puzzle involving a finite collection of water jugs of known integer capacities (in terms of a liquid measure such as liters or gallons). Initially each jug contains a known integer volume of liquid, not necessarily equal to its capacity. Puzzles of this type ask how many steps of pouring water from one jug to another (until either one jug becomes empty or the other becomes full) are needed to reach a goal state, specified in terms of the volume of liquid that must be present in some jug or jugs.


It is a common assumption, stated as part of these puzzles, that the jugs in the puzzle are irregularly shaped and unmarked, so that it is impossible to accurately measure any quantity of water that does not completely fill a jug. Other assumptions of these problems may include that no water can be spilled, and that each step pouring water from a source jug to a destination jug stops when either the source jug is empty or the destination jug is full, whichever happens first.

Standard example[edit]

The standard puzzle of this kind works with three jugs of capacity 8, 5 and 3 liters. These are initially filled with 8, 0 and 0 liters. In the goal state they should filled with 4, 4 and 0 liters. The puzzle may be solved in seven steps, passing through the following sequence of states (denoted as a bracketed triple of the three volumes of water in the three jugs):

[8,0,0] → [3,5,0] → [3,2,3] → [6,2,0] → [6,0,2] → [1,5,2] → [1,4,3] → [4,4,0].

Cowley (1926) writes that this particular puzzle "dates back to mediaeval times" and notes its occurrence in Bachet's 17th-century mathematics textbook.

Variant with taps and sinks[edit]

The solution to the puzzle, using two containers, a tap and a drain

The rules are sometimes formulated by adding a source (tap) and a drain (sink) which provide an infinite amount of additional water and an opportunity to pour all liquid from any jug into the sink. Filling a jug to the rim from the tap or pouring the entire contents of jug into the drain each count as one step while solving the problem. This version of the puzzle was featured in a scene of the 1995 movie Die Hard with a Vengeance.[1]

This variant is identical to the original, as a third container capable of holding the contents of the first two is mathematically equivalent to a tap or drain capable of filling or emptying both containers.

Three jugs[edit]

If the number of jugs is three, the filling status after each step can be described in a diagram of barycentric coordinates, because the sum of all three integers stays the same throughout all steps.[2] In consequence the steps can be visualized as some kind of billard moves in the (clipped) coordinate system on a triangular lattice.


  • Cowley, Elizabeth B. (1926). "Note on a Linear Diophantine Equation". Questions and Discussions. American Mathematical Monthly. 33 (7): 379–381. doi:10.2307/2298647. MR 1520987.
  • Tweedie, M. C. K. (1939). "A graphical method of solving Tartaglian measuring puzzles". Math. Gaz. 23 (255). pp. 278–282. JSTOR 3606420.
  • Saksena, J. P. (1968). "Stochastic optimal routing". Unternehmensforschung. 12 (1). pp. 173–177. doi:10.1007/BF01918326.
  • Atwood, Michael E.; Polson, Peter G. (1976). "A process model for water jug problems". Cogn. Psychol. 8. pp. 191–216. doi:10.1016/0010-0285(76)90023-2.
  • Rem, Martin; Choo, Young il (1982). "A fixed-space program of linear output complexity for the problem of the three vessels". Sci. Comput. Program. 2 (2). pp. 133–141. doi:10.1016/0167-6423(82)90011-9.
  • Thomas, Glanffrwd P. (1995). "The water jugs problem: solutions from artificial intelligence and mathematical viewpoints". Math. School. 24 (2). pp. 34–37. JSTOR 30215221.
  • Murray-Lasso, M. A. (2003). "Math puzzles, powerful ideas, algorithms and computers in teaching problem-solving". J. Res. Techn. 1 (3). pp. 215–234.
  • Lalchev, Zdravko Voutov; Varbanova, Margarita Genova; Voutova, Irirna Zdravkova (2009). "Perlman's geometric method of solving liquid pouring problems".
  • Goetschalckx, Marc (2011). "Single flow routing through a network". Intl. Ser. Operat. Res. & Manag. 161. pp. 155–180. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-6512-7_6.


  1. ^ Hint to Riddle #22: The 3 & 5 Litre Die Hard Water Puzzle. Puzzles.nigelcoldwell.co.uk. Retrieved on 2017-07-09.
  2. ^ Weisstein, Eric W. "Three Jug Problem". mathworld.wolfram.com. Retrieved 27 August 2019.