Crossword History: An Updated Timeline

Back in 2013, we created a timeline of events from crossword history as part of our celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the crossword.

Although 105 isn’t as prestigious as 100, and the anniversary is technically tomorrow, we thought we’d honor the day this year by updating our comprehensive look at the long (yet surprisingly short) road it took to get to that marvelous centennial!

So, without further ado or folderol, we proudly present:

A Brief History of the Crossword (Updated)

16th – 11th century BC

Inscriptions from New Kingdom-era Egypt (Eighteenth to Twentieth Dynasties) of horizontal and vertical lines of text divided into equal squares, that can be read both across the rows and down the columns, are made. These inscriptions are later referred to by Egyptologists as “Egyptian crossword puzzles.”

19th century AD

Rudimentary crosswords, similar to word squares, begin appearing in England, and later elsewhere in Europe.

June 22, 1871

Future inventor of the crossword, Arthur Wynne, is born.

March 23, 1897

Future New York Times crossword editor Margaret Farrar is born.

February 25, 1907

Future New York Times crossword editor Will Weng is born.

December 21, 1913

The New York World publishes the first crossword, invented by Liverpool journalist Arthur Wynne. (The puzzle is originally known as a word-cross.)

January 6, 1916

Future New York Times crossword editor Eugene T. Maleska is born.

1920

Margaret Farrar is hired by The New York World as a secretary, but soon finds herself assisting Arthur Wynne with proofreading puzzles. Her puzzles soon exceed Wynne’s in popularity.

Colonel H.W. Hill publishes the first Crossword Dictionary.

1923

Margaret Farrar revises the cluing system for crosswords, sorting them into “Horizontal” and “Vertical” clues by number. (It wouldn’t be until the 1940s that the more familiar “Across” and “Down” terminology became the norm.)

1924

Margaret Farrar publishes the first book of crossword puzzles under contract for Richard L. Simon and Max Schuster, “The Cross-Word Puzzle Book.” It was an instant bestseller, launching Simon & Schuster as a major publisher. (Additional information available below the timeline.)

The Daily Express, founded in 1900, becomes the first newspaper in the United Kingdom to carry crosswords.

Crossword-themed novelty songs hit the airwaves as the puzzle craze intensifies, most notably “Crossword Mama, You Puzzle Me (But Papa’s Gonna Figure You Out).”

The Amateur Crossword Puzzle League of America, a self-appointed group of puzzle enthusiasts, lobbies for rotational symmetry in crosswords, which becomes the standard.

Solver Ruth Franc von Phul becomes a minor celebrity after winning The New York Herald-Tribune’s National All Comers Cross Word Puzzle Tournament at the age of 20. (She would win again 2 years later.)

January 15, 1925

“Felix All Puzzled,” the first animated short to feature a crossword, is released.

February 2, 1925

The crossword-fueled musical revue “Puzzles of 1925” opens on Broadway. It runs until May of 1925.

February 15, 1925

Disney releases a crossword-themed animated short, “Alice Solves the Puzzle.”

1926

The cryptic crossword is invented by Edward Powys Mathers, who publishes under the pseudonym Torquemada. He devises them for The Observer newspaper.

First reported instances of Braille crosswords, as newspapers mention Helen Keller solving Braille crosswords and recommending them to the blind.

1931

Dell Puzzle Magazines begins publishing.
(Dell Publishing itself was founded in 1921.)

1941

Dell Pocket Crossword Puzzles first published.
(The magazine continues to this day.)

February 15, 1942

The New York Times runs its first Sunday edition crossword. (Additional information available below the timeline.)

June 2, 1944

Physics teacher and crossword constructor Leonard Dawe is questioned by authorities after several words coinciding with D-Day invasion plans appear in London’s Daily Telegraph(Additional information available below the timeline.)

1950

The crossword becomes a daily feature in The New York Times.

August 26, 1952

Future New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz is born.

1968

Lyricist Stephen Sondheim begins creating cryptic crosswords for New York Magazine, helping introduce Americans to British-style crosswords.

1969

Will Weng succeeds Margaret Farrar as the second crossword editor for The New York Times.

1973

Penny Press is founded.

1977

Eugene T. Maleska succeeds Will Weng as the third crossword editor for The New York Times.

1978

First year of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, later featured in the documentary Wordplay. 149 contestants compete for the title in the first national crossword tournament since the 1930s.

1979

Howard Garns creates the modern Sudoku puzzle for Dell Magazines (under the name Number Place), the first pen-and-paper puzzle to rival the crossword in popularity (though this spike in popularity would occur decades later under the name Sudoku).

June 11, 1984

Margaret Farrar, while working on the 134th volume in Simon & Schuster’s crossword puzzle book series, passes away.

1993

Will Shortz succeeds Eugene T. Maleska as the fourth crossword editor for The New York Times.

November 5, 1996

One of the most clever and famous crosswords of all time is published, the election-preceding crossword where either BOB DOLE ELECTED or CLINTON ELECTED could read out, depending on the solver’s answers.

1998

The Wall Street Journal adds a crossword to its newspaper, and Mike Shenk is appointed editor.

June 23, 2006

Wordplay documentary hits theaters, featuring celebrity solvers of crosswords as well as the participants and organizers of the 2005 edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

February 29 – March 2, 2008

Thanks in part to the Wordplay documentary, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament outgrows its previous setting and moves to Brooklyn.

June 6, 2008

Matt Gaffney launches his Weekly Crossword Contest (MGWCC).

August 2008

Lollapuzzoola, a crossword-solving tournament with a more tongue-in-cheek, freeform style, launches in Jackson Heights, New York.

October 6, 2008

Patrick Blindauer’s famous dollar bill-inspired crossword puzzle is published.

2009

The city of Lvov, Ukraine, creates a crossword that spans an entire side of a 100-foot-tall residential building, with clues scattered around the city’s major landmarks and attractions. It’s awesome.

October 11, 2011

PuzzleNation.com goes live.

June 2012

David Steinberg launches the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, designed to compile a complete database of every New York Times crossword.

August 13, 2012

PuzzleNation Blog is launched.

June 14, 2013

Matt Gaffney celebrates five years of MGWCC,
stating that MGWCC will run for 1000 weeks
(which puts the final edition around August 6th, 2027).

December 21, 2013

The Crossword officially turns one hundred years old.


Additional information:

1924: The publishing house Simon & Schuster, agreed to a small (3,600-copy) run of a crossword puzzle book, prompted by founder Richard L. Simon’s aunt, who wanted to give such a book to a friend. It became “a runaway bestseller.”

In no time the publisher had to put the book back on press; through repeated printings, it sold more than 100,000 copies. Soon a second collection followed, and then a third and a fourth. In 1924 and 1925 the crossword books were among the top 10 nonfiction bestsellers for the year, besting, among others, The Autobiography of Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.

February 15, 1942: The New York Times initially regarded crosswords as frivolous, calling them “a primitive form of mental exercise”; the motivating impulse for the Times to finally run the puzzle (which took over 20 years even though its publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, was a longtime crossword fan) appears to have been the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In a memo dated December 18, 1941, an editor conceded that the puzzle deserved space in the paper, considering what was happening elsewhere in the world and that readers might need something to occupy themselves during blackouts. The puzzle proved popular, and Sulzberger himself would author a Times puzzle before the year was out.

June 2, 1944: The words Omaha (codename for one of Normandy’s beaches), Utah (another Normandy beach codename), Overlord (the name for the plan to land at Normandy on June 6th), mulberry (nickname for a portable harbor built for D-Day), and Neptune (name for the naval portion of the invasion) all appeared in Daily Telegraph crosswords during the month preceding the D-Day landing.

This has been attributed to either an incredible coincidence or Dawe somehow overhearing these words (possibly slipped by soldiers involved) and incorporating them into puzzles unwittingly.


Do you have any suggestions for additions for our Crossword Timeline? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!

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Crosswords: Scourge of Society!

Study history for any length of time, and patterns will emerge. One of the most curious patterns is how new forms of recreation are embraced, then inevitably sensationalized, stigmatized, and finally vindicated when cooler heads prevail. You see it over and over again in pop culture across the decades.

Video games continue to suffer from periodic demonization, accused of instigating violence in children. Harry Potter books are still banned by some schools and communities for spreading occult ideas. Not so long ago, one of my favorite pastimes — Dungeons & Dragons — was maligned as Satanic and damaging to young minds.

All of these panics were (and are) patently ridiculous. After all, you can go back through history and find other examples that are absolutely ludicrous in retrospect.

For example, check out this excerpt from The San Antonio Texan from August 26, 1858, about the dangers of overindulging in reading:

A whole family brought to destitution in England, has had all its misfortunes clearly traced by the authorities to an ungovernable passion for novel reading entertained by the wife and mother. The husband was sober and industrious, but his wife was indolent and addicted to reading everything procurable in the way of romance. This led her to utterly neglect her husband, herself and her eight children.

One daughter in despair, fled the parental home, and threw herself into the haunts of vice. Another was found by the police chained by the legs to prevent her from following her sister’s example. The house exhibited the most offensive appearance of filth and indigence. In the midst of this pollution, privation and poverty, the cause of it sat reading the last ‘sensation work’ of the season, and refused to allow herself to be disturbed in her entertainment.

That is proper nonsense.

And yet, it should come as no surprise to you, fellow puzzler, that crosswords also received this kind of treatment. Yes, crosswords were the focal point of a moral panic.

Arthur Wynne’s “word-cross” first appeared in The New York World in 1913. Simon & Schuster published The Cross-Word Puzzle Book, edited by Margaret Farrar, in 1924. 1924 also marked the first time a UK newspaper, The Sunday Express, would publish crosswords. By that point, crosswords were officially a fad, inspiring fashion trends (black and white patterns), hit songs, and musical revues on Broadway.

Ah, 1924. It was a strange year for crosswords. Because 1924 also saw some of the most inflammatory accusations hurled at the simple pencil-and-paper puzzles.

In November of that year, Canadian Forum referred to the spread of crosswords as an “epidemic obsession.”

The paper went on to psychoanalyze crossword solvers, claiming that crosswords were, at heart, a regressive and childish pursuit:

It is obvious from the similarity of the cross-word puzzle to the child’s letter blocks that it is primarily the unconscious which is expressing itself in the cross-word puzzle obsession.

The same year, The London Times went so far as to call America “enslaved” by the puzzle:

[The crossword] has grown from the pastime of a few ingenious idlers into a national institution: a menace because it is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society… [people were seen] cudgeling their brains for a four-letter word meaning ‘molten rock’ or a six-letter word meaning ‘idler,’ or what not: in trains and trams, or omnibuses, in subways, in private offices and counting-rooms, in factories and homes, and even — although as yet rarely — with hymnals for camouflage, in church.”

That church reference was particularly notable, as there were church sermons decrying the negative influence of crosswords on society. Sermons! Imagine crosswords being treated like heavy metal in the ’80s. It’s mind-boggling.

Much like that hyperbolic story about a family decimated by reading, newspapers published dubious tales of familial collapse sparked by crosswords:

Theodore Koerner of Brooklyn asked his wife for help in solving a crossword. She begged off, claiming exhaustion. Koerner shot her (superficially) and then shot himself (fatally).

And The New York Times, bastion of puzzles for the last 75 years? Yes, even the Gray Lady had harsh things to say about crosswords:

Scarcely recovered from the form of temporary madness that made so many people pay enormous prices for mahjongg sets, about the same persons now are committing the same sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex.

The paper went on to call crosswords “a primitive form of mental exercise” and compare their value to that of so-called brain teasers that should be solved by schoolchildren in 30 seconds or less.

Crosswords wouldn’t debut in the New York Times until 1942.

But could there have been a hint of truth buried beneath all the sensationalism? Perhaps.

There were reports that overzealous solvers, desperate for an edge over other puzzlers, went so far as to desecrate books at the New York Public Library in order to prevent others from utilizing the same resources. A sign, circa 1937, firmly stated that “the use of library books in connection with contests and puzzles is prohibited.”

Those darn crossword addicts, always getting into trouble. Can’t trust ’em.

So, the next time someone tells you crosswords are boring and passe, you can tell them that crosswords were as cool and as dangerous as rock n’ roll, once upon a time.

Heck, they still are.

[Thanks to The Atlantic, The Senior Times, Historical Nonfiction on Tumblr, The 13th Floor, and CommuniCrossings for images and quotations.]


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Publish More Women!

That was the message received loud and clear by attendees at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament last year if they saw Erik Agard’s t-shirt. The future ACPT champion was amplifying a call that has resonated throughout the puzzle community for years now.

And yet, puzzles are often still regarded as a boys’ club.

Despite the fact that Margaret Farrar got the ball rolling. Despite the fact that Maura Jacobson contributed a puzzle to each of the first 34 ACPT tournaments and created over 1400 puzzles for New York Magazine. Despite a grand tradition of female innovators, tournament champions, and topnotch constructors that continues to this very day.

This topic once again took center stage recently when Will Shortz, gatekeeper for The New York Times crossword, posted his thoughts on the subject online:

Periodically I get asked, “Why aren’t more female constructors published in the New York Times?” And I always think, “Well, we don’t get a lot of submissions from women.” But until now I’ve never counted.

So this afternoon I counted. I looked through 260 recent submissions … and counted 33 by female constructors. That’s a little under 13%.

This figure is in line with the percentage of female constructors we publish. Last year, according to the stats at XwordInfo, 13% of the crosswords published in the Times were by women. So far this year the figure is slightly better — 15%.

Why this number is still so low, I don’t know.

In positive news, the number of new female constructors is significantly higher. In 2016, 31% of the 26 contributors who made their Times debut were female. In 2017, 19% were female. So far this year 27% have been female. XwordInfo lists all the names.

Our goal is to be inclusive. We want the Times crossword to reflect the lives, culture, and vocabulary of the people who do it, and having more female-made puzzles would provide better balance.

Still for us to publish more women constructors, we need to receive more puzzles by women. That’s the bottom line.

Our policy is open submissions. If you’re a woman who’d like to get into crossword constructing, we’d welcome your contributions, and we’ll be happy to work with you to get you published.

Reactions across the puzzle community have been mixed, but a number of people found Will’s response lacking. They asked what actual steps would be taken in order to encourage women and other underrepresented groups. Would there be additional support from the NYT for these sought-after constructors? Or would the status quo remain precisely that?

Those are questions worth asking. After all, the Times has been celebrating its 75th anniversary for the last year and a half with celebrity guest constructors. But how many of those celebrity collaborations have been with female constructors?

Three. That’s a project with huge visibility and mainstream media crossover potential, and the number is three.

And speaking of media crossover, it wasn’t that long ago — less than two years, actually — that the divisive clue “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM appeared in the NYT. Ruth Gordon wrote a brilliant piece in Slate highlighting how cluing standards at the Times could be exclusionary:

“Hateful” and “awful” may seem a bit harsh for what reads like a lame attempt at cheekiness. But the clue is certainly tone-deaf. And it’s not the first time a puzzle’s un-PC cluelessness has annoyed people. In 2012, the answer ILLEGAL was clued with: “One caught by the border patrol.” The offensive use of illegal as a noun set off a brouhaha that made its way to Univision.

And in November, Shortz issued a mea culpa for the clue “Exasperated comment from a feminist.” Answer: MEN — presumably with an invisible exclamation point and flying sweat out of a Cathy comic.

So, how has the NYT crossword been doing over the last two years?

We can turn again to the insightful Erik Agard for context. While guest-posting on Rex Parker’s puzzle blog, Erik took a moment to celebrate and spread the word about Women of Letters, the marvelous 18-puzzle charity project we also discussed a few weeks ago:

It’s also a lot of women! In fact, there are more woman-constructed crosswords in this collection than there have been published by the New York Times so far this year. Those who fail to see the urgency in closing the gender gaps in crossword constructing and editing often posit that ‘you can’t tell the difference between a crossword written by a woman and one written by a man’ (ergo, whether women are equally represented has little bearing on the end product, so why should we care).

The puzzles in Women of Letters disprove that thesis in a big way, through the dizzying array of less-traveled roads explored by themes, grids, and clues alike. From the juiciest marquee answers in the themelesses to the simplest choice of referencing a legendary actress by her accolades and not just [Bond girl], the collection never ceases to be a breath of fresh, inimitable air. (As the young people say: “Your fave could never.”)

That comment was posted on April 29th, and yes, as of April 29th, the New York Times crossword had published 17 puzzles from female constructors (including male/female collabs). That’s 17 out of 119 puzzles for the year, or 14.3%.

Erik helpfully provided some other statistics for the sake of comparison:

  • Crosswords With Friends: 33/119 = 27.7%
  • The Los Angeles Times: 31/119 = 26.1%
  • American Values Club Crossword: 3/18 = 16.7%
  • Chronicle for Higher Education: 2/16 = 12.5%
  • Wall Street Journal: 9/99 = 9.1%
  • Fireball Crosswords: 0/19 = 0%

It’s also worth pointing out that, as of April 29th, our Daily POP Crosswords app stood at 87/119, or 73.1%.

If you update the listings up through May 15th, Daily Pop Crosswords published 95 puzzles by women over 135 days. March alone featured 21 puzzles by women across 31 days. Heck, in February, only two puzzles the entire month were constructed by men. (Er, man, to be more specific. The same chap constructed both.)

But those aren’t the only numbers worth celebrating. Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles maintain an impressive publication rate for The Crosswords Club subscription service. They publish six puzzles a month, so from January to May, that’s 30 puzzles, and 16 were constructed by women (including three collabs). The January issue was all female constructors.

That’s no surprise, honestly, given the company. At Penny/Dell Puzzles, women constitute the majority of not only puzzle editors, but upper management as well.

So, forgive me if I come off as flippant, but when Will Shortz asks, “Why this number is still so low?”, I have to ask why as well.

Because the constructors are out there, right now, doing tremendous work.


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75 Years of New York Times Crosswords!

crosswordcake

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of The New York Times publishing its first crossword, and I thought I’d delve into NYT crossword history a bit to commemorate this event!

On February 15, 1942, The New York Times ran its first Sunday edition crossword. (The daily feature as we know it wouldn’t come into effect until 1950.)

But, you might be thinking to yourself, Arthur Wynne’s “word-cross” first appeared in the New York World in 1913. Simon & Schuster published The Cross-Word Puzzle Book, edited by Margaret Farrar, in 1924. What took The New York Times so long to catch on?

Truth be told, they didn’t think much of crosswords back then.

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“Scarcely recovered from the form of temporary madness that made so many people pay enormous prices for mahjongg sets, about the same persons now are committing the same sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex.”

The article goes on to call crosswords “a primitive form of mental exercise” and compare their value to that of so-called brain teasers that should be solved by schoolchildren in 30 seconds or less. A pretty harsh assessment, overall.

So, what changed their minds regarding crosswords?

Well, World War II happened.

“I don’t think I have to sell you on the increased demand for this type of pastime in an increasingly worried world,” wrote Margaret Farrar, the first crossword editor of The Times, in a memo to Lester Markel, the Sunday editor, after the Pearl Harbor attack. “You can’t think of your troubles while solving a crossword.”

In a memo dated December 18, 1941, Markel conceded that the puzzle deserved space in the paper, considering what was happening elsewhere in the world, and that readers might need something to occupy themselves during blackouts.

The puzzle proved popular, and Arthur Hays Sulzberger — the publisher of the New York Times and a longtime crossword fan himself — would author a Times puzzle before the year was out.

crossword-newspaper

And so now, only a few years after the crossword itself celebrated its centennial, the most famous crossword outlet in the world is celebrating three-quarters of a century, along with a wonderful legacy of innovation, wordplay, and creativity.

To mark the occasion, The Times is going all out. Not only did they publish a crossword on Tuesday by the youngest constructor in NYT history — 13-year-old Daniel Larsen — but over the course of the year, they’ll be publishing collaborations between top constructors and celebrity solvers!

The first, a feast of a collab between Patrick Blindauer and actor Jesse Eisenberg, was published yesterday.

So, we here at PuzzleNation tip our hat to not only the current crew at The New York Times crossword, but all of the editors, constructors, creators, and collaborators who have contributed to a true crossword institution. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

[For more on the 75th anniversary, please check out Deb Amlen’s wonderful piece here (from which I nabbed that Margaret Farrar quote).]


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Puzzle History: The first NYT crossword

[A sculpture masquerading as a stack of newspapers.]

I like to think of December as Crossword History Month. It’s rather fitting, seeing as the anniversary of the crossword is celebrated on December 21. (It’ll be 102 this year!)

So it’s only appropriate that David Steinberg, friend of the blog and mastermind of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, recently published some newly revealed information about another intriguing part of crossword history: the first crossword puzzle published by The New York Times.

On February 15, 1942, a puzzle by Charles Erlenkotter was the very first, starting a long tradition of proud puzzlehood for the Times. (He ended up having eight puzzles featured in the New York Times.) His puzzles were also published by The Washington Post, The New York Herald Tribune, and Simon & Schuster, among many others. In fact, dozens of puzzles are credited to Mr. Erlenkotter.

All of the information released by David gels nicely with the research I did for our Crossword History timeline. In a memo dated December 18, 1941, an editor for the New York Times conceded that the puzzle deserved space in the paper, considering what was happening elsewhere in the world, and that readers might need something to occupy themselves during blackouts.

David and his contact Donald Erlenkotter, grandnephew of Charles, theorize that Margaret Farrar was behind choosing Erlenkotter’s puzzle. When Farrar was recruited to be the first puzzle editor for the Times, she wouldn’t have been able to use one of her own puzzles as the inaugural puzzle for the newspaper, since that would conflict with her work with Simon & Schuster.

But no doubt Charles had heard of her through her S&S work, contacted her with his own puzzles, and voila! He becomes the first of many constructors to test the puzzly mettle of crossword fans for decades to come!

I’ve long said that one of the most amazing things about the Internet is that connections can now be made that no other technology would’ve allowed for, and this is one more example. Due diligence, keen research, marvelous resources, and the ability to reach out to others with similar interests has added one more vibrant piece to the mosaic of puzzle history.

It’s moments like this that make me the history buff I am.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Pluto, Pi, and Puzzles edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of puzzly and otherwise nerdy holidays!

I already mentioned the fast-approaching American Crossword Puzzle Tournament yesterday, but did you know that today is Pluto Planet Day?

Yes, today is a day when all those scarred or upset by Pluto’s demotion from planet to dwarf planet (or plutoid, or Trans-Neptunian Object, or whatever they’re calling it now).

In fact, the residents of the state of New Mexico were so upset by Pluto’s dismissal from the list of planets that they made a law stating Pluto is forever a planet in New Mexico skies. Which is pretty great (and in flagrant defiance of the current scientific literature).

Tomorrow is a holiday as well! It’s Pi Day (March 14th, a.k.a. 3.14)! And, actually, it’s the most mathematically significant Pi Day since 1592!

When you take Saturday’s date — 3/14/15 — you have the first five digits of Pi. When you add a certain time — 3/14/15 at 9:26 — you have the first eight!

(MIT used to email its acceptance letters out at 1:59 on March 14.)

Plus, March 23 is crossword icon Margaret Farrar’s birthday!

Hired as a secretary for The New York World, she soon found herself assisting crossword creator Arthur Wynne with proofreading puzzles, only for her puzzles to surpass his in popularity! She was the first crossword editor for The New York Times, a position she held until 1969 when Will Weng took over the position.

So, fellow puzzlers, will you be celebrating Pi Day or Pluto Planet Day or Farrar’s birthday? Better yet, will you be participating in this year’s ACPT? Let me know!

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