The Crossword Puzzle, Created by a Cedar Grove Resident, Turns 100

BY  |  Thursday, Dec 19, 2013 9:00am  |  COMMENTS (5)

first-crossword-1913In 1913, Arthur Wynne was just doing what his boss requested. Taking a few hours away from his normal editing duties at the New York World, then a major newspaper, he took on the task of dreaming up some new tidbits for the Fun pages–word, picture, and number activities, simple pastimes to entertain the weekend readers. One week, he was stuck with some open space, and remembered Magic Square, a word game he’d played as a child in Wales (and which was in turn based on a Pompeian numbers game with Latin origins).

Wynne, a Cedar Grove resident, re-jiggered it to make it more interesting for adults. He drew some interlocking blank squares, arranged into a diamond shape, and prepared a list of clues to what words the letters that would go in the boxes should spell out. He called it a word-cross, and sent his creation to the typesetting department.

A careless (or perhaps opinionated) typesetter reversed the title, and the crossword puzzle was born.

And on December 21, it turns 100 years old.

So, did Wynne become a rich man from his invention? Receive accolades for sparking a new craze? Did he grow philosophical in his dotage about his contribution to how millions spend their leisure hours around the globe?

Hardly.

His boss discouraged him from copyrighting his idea (calling it a passing fancy), and Wynne merely got on with his job.

Arthur Wynne portrait

And on the side, this unassuming multi-talented man went about designing local buildings (including St. David’s Church which once stood on Pompton Avenue), and playing the violin. Wynne had emigrated to New Jersey from Liverpool in the 1890s, and each morning he walked to the Erie Railroad station in Upper Montclair for a train to his Manhattan office. How could he know that tens of thousands of travelers would one day solve crossword puzzles to pass the time?

The World owned the rights to his creation but hardly regarded the crossword as important. They printed them, as did many other newspapers, and a craze eventually blossomed in the early 1920s, causing a furor among intellectuals and editorial writers who dismissed them as a silly waste of time. When Simon and Shuster published their first book in 1924, it was a full length book of crosswords.

By then crossword puzzle fascination was growing wildly. The New York Times began printing a daily crossword in 1950 (by then the black squares had been added), and even today, nearly 30 percent of Times readers open first to the puzzle, me included. But I’m nowhere near a puzzle solving ace, certainly not even close to one of the fastest recorded times of one minute, 22 seconds for a Monday puzzle, held by reigning national champion Dan Feyer.

Wynne’s work spawned at least two new career categories–cruciverbalists (puzzle constructors; though the term also refers to devoted crossword fans), and crossword puzzle editors. Will Shortz, chief crossword puzzle editor at the Times, and founder of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, (scheduled for March 2014 in Brooklyn), has been talking about the popularity of the word game and offering solving tips all this month. He also oversees the crossword blog at the Times.

180px-Stamp-ctc-first-crossword

Not long ago, a documentary, Wordplay, paid homage to modern day solvers and offered a glimpse inside the tournament. Now, 100 hundred years after Wynne’s first crossword, media outlets are naturally paying homage to Wynne, including the New York Post, and the Washington Post (which is running a cool crossword contest for those who know a lot about DC).

Wynne and his wife raised four children on what is now Cedar Street. Cedar Grove resident and former Historical Society president Philip Jaeger devoted a page to Wynne in his 1999 book Images of America: Cedar Grove. By the mid-1930s, the Wynnes left Cedar Grove, moving first to Mountain Lakes, then to Florida, where he died in 1945. By then, the Cedar Grove crossword connection was little known.

Though Wynne did not get rich or famous from the crossword, and was often not properly credited for his work, his daughter was often quoted saying her father was never bitter, and that he was happy just to have been a small part of word history.

Top photo, Flickr/Creative Commons/CrosswordMan.

5 Comments

  1. POSTED BY PAZ  |  December 19, 2013 @ 10:11 am

    4 down…..Someone who slings coffee?

  2. POSTED BY spork  |  December 19, 2013 @ 10:47 am

    fascinating!

  3. POSTED BY walleroo  |  December 19, 2013 @ 10:47 am

    OMG, imagine what his house is worth now.

  4. POSTED BY Conan  |  December 19, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

    In the 1960s I commuted for a while from Westchester to GCT. I noticed one rider who would immediately open his Times to the Puzzle and whip out a fancy fountain pen (no Rolling Writer for him!) and fill in the squares rapidly. One morning after leaving the terminal, I happened to see him dump his paper in a basket on Madison Avenue. For no reason known to man I picked up the paper and took a look to see how he had done. Every square in the puzzle was neatly filled in in ink, and in gibberish. He was writing down nonsense letters. I started doing the NYT Puzzle the next morning, and I have continued on and off (a couple of years with the Herald Tribune whilst working in Europe) for almost 50 years. These days, a Grand Slam for me is to complete the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday puzzles in the same week. In ink. I bat about .500 in this endeavor, and I do the puzzles online for most of the rest of the week. I remember in the 70s that New York Magazine published a weekly version of one of the London newspaper’s puzzles — and named it the World’s Hardest Crossword. It was. I think I finished one in three years of trying! For any of you who are stumped by today’s NYT puzzle (Will Shortz loves gimmicks), just let me say it was like mixing oil and water.

  5. POSTED BY aquamanatee  |  December 22, 2013 @ 2:00 pm

    Way to go, Lisa Romeo and Baristanet, for doing right by Cedar Grove’s Arthur Wynne. In earlier coverage, The New York Times didn’t even mention him in connection with the anniversary of the invention.

    Whoa, Conan. So you’re saying this guy with the pen on your Westchester commuter train was simply going through the motions of completing the puzzle, filling in random letters to impress those seated nearby? Reminds me of a movie whose title escapes me where Elliott Gould’s on a plane. He does the puzzle. Then, with a chick he’s hitting on sitting across the aisle, he fills in a second copy of the same puzzle at lightning speed to impress her. Somebody please help me. What was that movie? I’ve Googled it to death.

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