Puzzles in Pop Culture: Felix the Cat

It’s fun to uncover little puzzly bits of history, but when history, puzzles, and entertainment intertwine, it always makes for intriguing viewing.

So when friend of the blog Darcy Bearman showed me a Felix the Cat cartoon from the 1920s that centered around an unsolved crossword puzzle, naturally I was intrigued.

It wasn’t hard to track down a copy, given how practically everything seems to be on YouTube these days.

Here are the official details:

Felix All Puzzled (1924)

  • Director: Pat Sullivan
  • Animator: Otto Messmer
  • Distributor: M.J. Winkler Productions

Originally Released on January 15, 1925.

Felix is hungry, but his owner won’t feed him until he finishes his crossword puzzle. And he’s fixated on the down clue that will complete the puzzle, “Vertical. Found chiefly in Russia.”

Pondering what the answer could be Felix, the cat laments that he could eat if only he could get to Russia and uncover the missing word.

A nearby mule kicks Felix all the way to Russia, seemingly out of spite — clearly a Moscow Mule — and Felix lands in a small hut. Momentarily mistaken for a bomb, he leaves the hut and heads into town.

He sees two Russians leaning over some papers, and presumes that the answer will be on those papers. But after sneaking into the building, he’s accused of spying, shot at, and chased out. As it turns out, these two men are plotting a revolution, and they toss bombs at Felix.

After avoiding several of them, Felix is blown into the air by the last one, and ends up back in America.

His owner, the ungrateful boor, immediately asks if Felix found the answer. He doesn’t ask how his trip was, or if he’s alright, or hey, can I get you a bite to eat after your mule-and-bomb-propelled world tour. What a jerk.

And Felix’s snarky reply turns out to be the correct answer.

Felix laughs. His owner does a little victory dance. And the cartoon ends.

Naturally, I can’t help but ask… DID YOU FEED FELIX NOW THAT YOUR PUZZLE IS DONE, YOU SELFISH DOOFUS? I mean, come on. It’s the whole reason that Felix bothers going to Russia. He wants to eat. Feed him!

But I digress.

You may have noticed that the cartoon is a little choppy. If you did, kudos to you. As it turns out, most of the copies of this cartoon that are in circulation are from a Kodascope print where several scenes were cut. Given that the original run time listing was 5 minutes, suddenly the choppiness makes sense.

A half-dozen sequences or so are missing from this version, and they explain some of the weirder moments in the cartoon. For instance, the mule kicks Felix because the question marks (from his attempts to figure out how to get to Russia) tickle the mule.

Additionally, if you were wondering why the first Russian Felix meets thinks he’s a bomb, it’s because he got a letter from the revolutionaries earlier that reads “Today, you die!” (Which is admittedly a little grim.)

Now, let’s talk about that puzzle.

TRIPPLE is a pretty strange 1-Across. A chiefly South African term for a horse’s gait (according to Merriam Webster, anyway), you can’t help but wonder if they simply misspelled TRIPLE.

But the rest of the puzzle is fairly straightforward. It’s a 7×7 grid with a few two-letter entries (which wouldn’t fly in most crosswords these days). The combination of EASTERS and EVADERS crossing at the S is admittedly underwhelming, but as far as I can tell

The only other entry that jumps out at me is NVA, but only because I wonder how it would be clued. It’s not like a 1925 cartoon would be referencing the North Vietnamese Army.

Upon further digging, I suspect this would have been clued referencing the National Vaudeville Artists, a union formed by Edward Franklin Albee. The clue “Theatrical organization” is used for NVA in a 1953 New York Times puzzle, according to XwordInfo.

Of course, with obtuse cluing like “Chiefly found in Russia,” even a small grid like this could prove to be a challenge!


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Puzzle History: Codebreaking and the NSA

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[Image courtesy of NSA.gov.]

The National Security Agency has been in the news a lot over the last few years.

It arguably all started with Edward Snowden and the revelations about government surveillance, both domestic and foreign, that emerged in his wake. Between President Trump’s intimations of Obama-era wiretapping (which also supposedly involved England’s GCHQ) and recent news stories about NSA contractor Reality Winner leaking information, the NSA continues to draw mainstream attention in the 24-hour news cycle.

When you factor in the declassification of codebreaking intel during and after World War II, we know more about the NSA’s inner workings than ever before.

You might be asking what the NSA has to do with puzzles. Well, everything. Because the NSA was born as a codecracking organization.

enigma

The NSA was founded in November of 1952, but its formative stages began during World War II, as codebreakers were recruited in the U.S. starting in 1943. Not only were they tasked with tackling the German ENIGMA code, but their secondary mission was to solve “the Russian problem.” This group was known as Signals Intelligence, or SIGINT.

William Friedman, one of the early figures in American codebreaking, described cryptanalysis as “a unique profession, demanding a peculiar kind of puzzle-solving mentality combined with patience. So staffing this new organization was a curious endeavor.”

Those who were recruited came from all walks of life:

Career officers and new draftees, young women math majors just out of Smith or Vassar, partners of white-shoe New York law firms, electrical engineers from MIT, the entire ship’s band from the battleship California after it was torpedoed by the Japanese in the attack on Pearl Harbor, winners of puzzle competitions, radio hobbyists, farm boys from Wisconsin, world-traveling ex-missionaries, and one of the World’s foremost experts on the cuneiform tablets of ancient Assyria.

04/11/14 imitation game - bletchley park, milton keynes

A large campus was built that echoed the style and efforts of Britain’s Bletchley Park, including Alan Turing’s calculating machines, the bombes. Efforts on both sides of the Atlantic centered on cracking ENIGMA, the German codes used in all sorts of high-level communications. The teams worked alongside the bombes to try to determine which of the 456, 976 possible codes was being used in a given piece of communication.

It was a truly Herculean effort.

But while nearly half the staff focused on the Germans, others focused on cracking Russian codebooks, where words were translated into four-digit codes. Often, decrypting these codes involved “brute force” efforts, poring through numerous messages to pair up messages that used similar numerical groups, meaning they used the same cipher.

This would only work if the Soviets were lazy in their production of so-called “one-time pads,” encryption devices that had a particular code, which would be used once and then thrown away. Brute force codebreaking revealed that some of the one-time pads had been used more than once, a lapse in Soviet security that could work to the advantage of U.S. intelligence.

That deduction led to another stunning discovery: cracking the system used in encrypted messages to tell agents which encryption was used in a given missive. You see, each encoded message contained within it a code that dictated the cipher necessary to decrypt the message.

The Russians would later complicate this work by employing multiplexers: devices that would transmit numerous messages at once, making it harder to separate one message from another in the same dispatch.

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[Image courtesy of Virtantiq.com.]

The Germans would unwittingly aid the US in their Russian codebreaking efforts when a POW camp in Bad Aibling, Germany, was captured by the US army, and they uncovered a German device designed to “de-multiplex” Russian messages. The device was called the HMFS, because Hartmehrfachfernschreiber, while a great deal of fun to type, is hard to say quickly.

After World War II ended, U.S. intelligence consolidated their efforts on “the Russian problem,” continuing their work unraveling the Russian codebooks. Slowly, the codemasters began determining which organizations in the Soviet government used which codes. Even if the codes weren’t broken yet, it helped the intelligence community organize and prioritize their efforts.

The problem? They had a very tight timeframe to work in. Those duplicated codebooks were produced during a very small window of time in 1942, and only issued to Soviet agents in the three years that followed. By 1947, SIGINT analysts knew the Soviets would soon run out of the duplicated pads. Once they did, those recurring patterns of encrypted numbers would stop, and the best chance for cracking the Soviet codes would be lost.

Still, there was reason to be encouraged. Some important code words had been identified. TYRE was New York City, SIDON was London, and CARTHAGE was Washington; ENORMOZ appeared often enough that they determined it referred to atomic bomb research in Los Alamos.

It would also be revealed, through careful analysis of decrypted intel, that Soviet agents were embedded in both the U.S. Justice Department and in England’s Bletchley Park campus. The Justice Department agent was identified and tried, but released after the court found insufficient evidence to place her under surveillance in the first place.

This was one consequence of the secrecy surrounding codebreaking: an unwillingness to reveal their codebreaking success by turning over evidence of it. (As for the Bletchley Park spies, one was identified in 1951 and confessed in 1964. The other was never identified.)

By this time, the Russians had gone over ENIGMA machines captured during the German retreat, and had unraveled not only how the devices worked, but how to improve upon them. This would lead to the next-generation Russian Fialka machine.

fialka

With ever-increasing complexity when it came to encryption, thanks to increased automation, codebreaking evolved into not just intelligence work, but intelligence analysis. After all, if you don’t know something is important, you don’t necessarily give it the attention it deserves. As researcher Stephen Budiansky put it, “The top translators at Bletchley were intelligence officers first, who sifted myriad pieces to assemble an insightful whole.”

It also led to bigger, faster machines, like Goldberg and Demon, two computation machines designed to more efficiently pore over the vast amount of encrypted information being intercepted by the various U.S. intelligence services.

In 1948, though, the game changed. It changed so dramatically that November 1, 1948, is still remembered in NSA circles as Black Friday.


I hope you’re enjoying this look at the early days of America’s codebreaking efforts. Part 2 will continue next week, with a look at the rise of the NSA, Cold War cryptography, and more!

[Quotes and certain photos were sourced from Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union by Stephen Budiansky.]


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