One hundred years ago yesterday, a curious new feature appeared in the Sunday New York World: On Dec. 21, 1913, English-born journalist Arthur Wynne published what he called a “word-cross” puzzle. Americans’ free time would never be the same. Its diamond shape makes it look a little unfamiliar today, but the basic elements of today’s crossword were in place: blank boxes to fill in letters; words hinted at by clues; a pattern of black squares in the middle.
The craze quickly spread across the country. Other papers began publishing them, and a top-selling crossword book surprised critics who had hoped the “time-wasting” puzzles would be just a passing fad. They initially came in an array of sizes and shapes, and could often have spelling errors. Crossword historians usually credit New York Times editor Margaret Farrar for standardizing the form: Beginning in 1942, she enforced a more consistent regime of common words, phrases, themes, identical sizes, and shapes.
Even so, some very modern-looking crosswords appeared quite early. Reproduced here is the earliest crossword puzzle in the Globe archives, published in The Sunday Globe of March 4, 1917. Despite its quirky numbering system, it’s a close ancestor of today’s puzzles. “It’s symmetrical and mostly uses common words that a reasonably well-educated person would know,” says Matt Gaffney, a prize-winning puzzle constructor. But differences exist—it uses words twice, it includes two-letter words, and all the clues are simple definitions.
Today the crossword has been called the most widespread puzzle on earth, with different traditions around the world. The British tend towards looser grids and more cryptic clues, for instance, and Polish crosswords normally only have nouns. Their global appeal suggests that those early crossword creators had hit on something important, says Robert Kurzban, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist who has written about crosswords. Solving crosswords requires using multiple faculties simultaneously, and it piques a set of human desires: “We have evolved with a curiosity, a desire to discover new information and a satisfaction when a game is won,” he says. The question is whether, in an age of video games and Sudoku, crosswords will maintain their popularity for another 100 years. That remains a puzzle.
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