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