Every morning, I don’t solve a complete NY Times Crossword Puzzle, just what they call “The Mini.” It’s only 5 lines by 5 rows, enough for a two-minute distraction after finding the Wordle of the day. Solving crossword puzzles is quite a popular activity, but not a very old one. For once, it seems that the Greek and the Romans had nothing to do with it! So…
Who Invented the Crossword Puzzle?
The story of the creation of the crossword puzzle begins as the world was on the brink of World War I, on December 21, 1913. Born in Liverpool, Arthur Wynne was a journalist who emigrated to the United States in 1891 and eventually worked at the New York World newspaper. One day, an editor found himself in need of a new form of entertainment for the paper’s FUN section and asked Wynne to come up with something. This led him to create what would become the prototype for the modern crossword puzzle.
Arthur Wynne took inspiration from word squares, a British game from the 19th century that arranged words so that they read the same vertically and horizontally. He designed a diamond-shaped grid with a set of clues that helped readers deduce the letters required to fill in the blanks.
This initial creation was dubbed “FUN’s Word-Cross Puzzle.” A typographical error later turned it into “Cross-Word,” a name that stuck and remains the term used today.
The Crossword Puzzle’s Rise Amidst Chaos
As World War I intensified and the headlines grew increasingly grim, the crossword puzzle strangely gained popularity. The New York World used banners on its front pages to guide its readers away from the alarming news and towards the crossword puzzle of the day, presenting its new game as an escape from the uncertainty of the war. This editorial decision sparked the rapid rise of “cruciverbalists,” or crossword enthusiasts.
Following the conclusion of the war, the growth of the crossword puzzle didn’t stop. In fact, its popularity surged across various media, infiltrating stockings, musicals, and even comic strips. Despite its widespread appeal, crossword puzzles displayed a wide range of styles, with some meticulously crafted and others more freeform and error-prone. This diversity contributed to both the puzzle’s allure and its challenges for enthusiasts.
In 1924, Simon & Schuster clearly saw the potential of what was still considered a fad and published a book of crossword puzzles that became a smashing success.
The New York Times’ Resistance and Surrender
If for a long time now everybody associate crossword puzzles with the New York Times, that was not always the case. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the newspaper ran editorials dismissing crosswords as fleeting trends. This principled stance was rooted in the Times’ commitment to maintaining its standards and captivating readers without relying on puzzles.
However, the onset of World War II prompted a change of heart. The Times recognized the value of crossword puzzles as a necessary diversion during another chaotic time. On February 15, 1942, the New York Times introduced its first crossword puzzle, but Arthur Hay Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, did it with a commitment to excellence, obviously. An experienced crossword editor from Simon and Schuster named Margaret Petherbridge Farrar was brought in to uphold the highest quality standards and to establish regulations that still influence puzzle construction today.
Spying Through the Crossword
While the crossword puzzle’s popularity was growing in the United States, a similar trend was taking place across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom. During World War II, some crossword answers in British puzzles raised alarms within intelligence circles. Words like “GOLD,” “SWORD,” and “JUNO” appeared in the puzzles, which were also code names for beaches assigned to Allied troops. Initially, these coincidences didn’t arouse suspicion, but as more code words appeared in puzzles, British intelligence became concerned.
A puzzling connection led investigators to Leonard Dawe, a school headmaster and a prolific crossword constructor for the Observer newspaper. His puzzles contained the code words and raised suspicions that he might have been sending secret messages to the enemy. However, it was eventually revealed (in 1984!) that the students at his school had innocently contributed the code words they overheard from soldiers’ conversations. This intriguing incident highlighted the inadvertent role that crossword puzzles could play in wartime intelligence.
The Continued Evolution of Crossword Puzzles
Over the years, crossword puzzles continued to evolve. They embraced new technologies and platforms, moving beyond print publications to online platforms, software applications, and mobile devices. The digital age brought about new possibilities for puzzle creation, distribution, and interaction. Puzzle enthusiasts could now solve crosswords on their computers, tablets, and smartphones, expanding the reach and accessibility of the puzzle.
Crossword puzzles also diversified in terms of difficulty levels and themes. Cryptic crosswords, which had gained popularity in the United Kingdom, posed a greater challenge to solvers, requiring not only word knowledge but also a keen sense of wordplay and creative thinking. Specialized crossword themes emerged, catering to various interests and niches, ensuring that solvers of all backgrounds could find puzzles that resonated with them.