Today is the 100th anniversary of the crossword. (Not yesterday, as Google’s marvelous Merl Reagle-penned crossword doodle might’ve had you believe.) One hundred years ago today, Arthur Wynne’s “word-cross” puzzle debuted in The New York World, kickstarting a phenomenon that has gone well past pencil-and-paper, more relevant and influential today than ever before.
Let’s take a look at that very first puzzle, shall we?
[For the solution and a slightly larger grid image, click here.]
In modern crossword terms, this diamond shape is known as an open puzzle or a cut puzzle, since it’s not the standard crossword square. I’m a fan of cut puzzles, because their shapes draw the eye. H-shaped, Z-shaped, and diamond-shaped puzzles aren’t uncommon among cut puzzles, and it’s always a treat to see one when flipping through a book of crosswords.
And it’s sort of fascinating to see all the differences between this puzzle and the modern crossword, despite its utter familiarity.
There’s the set word, the singlet letters at the puzzle’s four corners that don’t get crossed, and those enormous numbers that leave no writing space for the actual letter. There’s also that very curious cluing order, which took me a second to decode: the acrosses along the left side of the diamond grid, then the acrosses along the right side of the diamond grid, then the downs from furthest left to furthest right. Figuring that out was something of a puzzle in itself!
It’s not hard to see the appeal of the crossword from the very beginning. The grid is open, not daunting at all, and that casual spirit no doubt attracted plenty of intrigued first-time solvers. The mechanics of the puzzle are solid, and the synonym-heavy cluing style is an easy introduction to cluing.
Some of those clues, like 23-30’s [A river in Russia] for NEVA wouldn’t be out of place in a grid today. Though hopefully you wouldn’t come across a clue like 10-18’s [The fibre of the gomuti palm] for DOH too often. Wow, that is a seriously tough one. (Plus, I suspect modern solvers would get it much faster if clued as [Homer’s exclamation].)
Still, there’s a sense of humor to the construction. Look at clue 18-19 [What this puzzle is]. HARD. Well, no kidding, Mr. Wynne, when you expect us to know the fibre of the gomuti palm. *laughs*
What about clue 6-22? [What we all should be] MORAL. Wynne’s puzzle has a message. =)
Solving the puzzle was a curious experience, both as a solver and constructor. On the construction side, the word DOVE appears twice, a serious no-no in the modern puzzle community.
It would need editing to make the cut these days, but Wynne’s word-cross remains a worthwhile and laudable start for a long, proud legacy of wordplay and puzzling.
That legacy is quite personal for me, since this year also marks my ten-year anniversary working in the puzzle business. (That anniversary came less than a week before today’s centennial celebrations.)
I make a living thanks to Arthur Wynne’s wildly-successful creation, and I am grateful every day that I get to work on puzzles, or come here and write about them, all the while contributing to a community with a century-long tradition of humor, playfulness, intelligence, and style.
Thank you, Arthur.
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