“At 100, the crossword shows no signs of slowing down. On the contrary, the puzzle has adapted to the Internet’s thriving games culture.”
“Lee Iacocca says that he turns to the crossword the minute he gets his hands on the newspaper,” someone recently told me. I’ve been collecting this type of anecdote ever since I wrote my first book, What’s Gnu: History of the Crossword Puzzle (Vintage), eons ago and became an expert in the puzzle field. On December 21, the spry crossword turned 100, and on that day, Mr. Iacocca will most likely read it on a smartphone or tablet. He’s in good company: I’ve been told that Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Roy Blount Jr., and millions of moms around the world (people often say to me, “My mom loves puzzles”) all share a love affair with the square.
The crossword was invented by a newspaperman named Arthur Wynne. Wynne was born in Liverpool in 1871, but he eventually moved to the U.S. and assumed the editorial reins of the Fun section of New York World (which was then owned by Joseph Pulitzer). Wynne’s brainchild made its debut in the Dec. 21, 1913, edition of the paper. The first crossword was a diamond-shaped grid matched to synonym-style clues. The word “FUN” was spelled out in the three top boxes, and Wynne instructed readers to jot answers to the clues in the blank squares using capital letters. He was surprised by the bags of fan mail that the new “cross word” generated. Wynne had struck gold by giving readers a mental workout disguised as a game. Unfortunately, he failed to secure a copyright (Sudoku’s Japanese popularizer, Maki Kaji, also missed the boat on copyrighting his invention).
Over the next 10 years, Wynne’s able assistant, Margaret Farrar, transformed the World feature into an international superstar. Farrar, a well-heeled Upper East Sider, used the academic skills she acquired at Smith College to improve on Wynne’s initial efforts. Her work paid off handsomely in 1924, when the fledgling publishing house that would later become Simon & Schuster hired Farrar and two of her colleagues to compile a collection of crosswords. An instant bestseller, here and abroad, the book launched a series that continues to this day.
In 1942, the New York Times, after receiving requests from countless crossword fans (among them, Times publisher Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger), decided to begin including a puzzle in its Sunday magazine, and Farrar was named editor. The popular daily feature followed in 1950. Farrar remained editor until 1968, when Times policy forced her to retire at age 70. Fortunately, the Los Angeles Times had no such mandatory retirement policy, and she spent many years happily editing crosswords for the paper, as well as for the S&S series.
At 100, the crossword shows no signs of slowing down. On the contrary, the puzzle has adapted to the Internet’s thriving games culture. Blogs enable “acrossionados,” as I call them, to reach out to puzzle professionals. What is the secret ingredient that keeps readers turning to the puzzle page? Farrar thought that the crossword provided escape—a welcome distraction from worries. My own love affair with the square, which includes years at the helms of companies that produce puzzle magazines, leads me back to Wynne’s key word: “FUN.” They made play acceptable for grownups. Medical experts like Dr. Oz tout puzzles as a way to pump mental muscles and sharpen memory. Just a handful of puzzle professionals keep millions of solvers entertained, as new generations fall under the crossword’s spell.
If Wynne could join the celebration of the crossword in its centennial year, he’d tweet 140 characters of pride, like: “Gobsmacked by how much $ #crossword industry generates, and how people still play with Venus pencils and notepaper despite #smartphones, #computers, and #tablets.” And his devoted followers would tweet back: “Thanks, Arthur, for #fun game that makes me look #brainy and helps my score on #Words with Friends. Also, thanks from my #mom.”