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First Crossword Puzzles

Author Rita Smith
Air Date 12/21/1999

First Crossword Puzzles Transcript

According to the Oxford Guide to Word Games, the crossword puzzle is “the most popular and widespread word game in the world.” It was invented by a journalist named Arthur Wynne who published the first crossword in The New York World, a Sunday newspaper, on December 21, 1913. Readers loved the puzzle, so Wynne created more. For over ten years the World was the only newspaper to run crossword puzzles, which had a small, but growing and very loyal following.

Then, in 1924, according to Roger Millington in Crossword Puzzles, their History and Their Cult, the newly established publishing firm of Simon and Schuster gathered together fifty crosswords and published them in a book. The response was overwhelming. Within three months, sales reached 40,000 and within a year, three volumes of puzzles had appeared with total sales of over 400,000.(1) Crossword mania had hit America.

Millington records some of the results of this obsession. A man on a train traveling between New York and Boston discovered that 60% of the passengers were working crossword puzzles. The B&O Railroad promptly put dictionaries on all its main line trains. The Los Angeles Library kept the latest dictionaries at the reference desk, fastened to racks available only under supervision and limited to a five minute use. A New York hospital reported increased headache complaints, arising from eye strain caused not only by the small type the clues were set in, but also by the constant shifting to and fro of the eyes between the squares and the clues.

There were all kinds of opinions about the crossword craze. James Lough, Dean of New York University, saw it as a manifestation of mankind’s old instinct for combat. “People may think they are seeking to improve their minds when they find the correct solution to a puzzle,” he says, “but what they are really doing is working off a little of their primitive instinct for combat; which has been sublimated enough to enjoy a tussle with elusive synonyms.”(3)

I personally love to do crosswords and I have my ritual way of going about it. First, I fill in all the across and down clues that I know absolutely to be correct; that way I don’t have any wrong letters which could mislead me in solving another clue. Then I go back and begin to fill in those words which I can now guess since there is a letter in place. The process is filled with wonderful “aha” moments where I finally get down to the third meaning of the clue word and I can say, with confidence and triumph, Yes!

That’s it! When the puzzle is done, everything fits together so perfectly; it all makes sense and is so logical, so tidy and so satisfying. I guess James Lough could have been right. Maybe it does work off a little of my primitive instinct for combat, because successfully completing a tricky, complicated crossword puzzle with witty and ambiguous clues, certainly is one of my life’s little victories.

1 Millington, p. 17-18.
2 Millington, p. 26.
3 Millington, p. 25.

Augarde, Tony. The Oxford Guide to Word Games. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Millington, Roger. Crossword Puzzles: Their History and Their Cult. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1974.

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