Puzzlements a century long


There’s a peculiar marketing term that’s popular these days: Interactive media. The implication is that the consumer “interacts” with the media product, rather than simply sitting there, passively absorbing whatever is being presented. While this term is popular today as a means to describe Internet content, the concept is actually quite old. Today we celebrate a milestone in the history of “interactive” media.

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the crossword puzzle. On December 21, 1913, Arthur Wynne published a little diamond-shaped grid, along with 30-odd clues, in the New York World. Dissuaded by the publisher, Wynne thought his invention was a passing fad, not worthy of copyright. For a decade Wynne’s thinking was largely correct. It was a distracting contrivance with niche appeal. The very first puzzle differed from today’s crosswords in that it was diamond shaped and contained no internal black squares. Soon other newspapers picked up the newly discovered pastime and within a decade crossword puzzles were featured in almost all American newspapers. It was in this period crosswords began to assume their familiar form. The year 1924 was a signal year for crosswords. Publishers Simon & Schuster, released a small run of their first crossword puzzle book. Interestingly the publication was done largely as a favor to Richard Simon’s aunt who was a puzzle fan.

The book — which came with a free pencil — was a huge hit. Of the occasion, Smithsonian magazine states: “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.”

This new craze also prompted another frenzy: dictionary sales. Indeed, many took the ascent of the crossword as the harbinger of a new American literacy. In 1924, the Frederick (Maryland) Daily News cast the crossword’s impact this way; “Thoughtful working of cross word puzzles can not fail to make the average American a more careful and fluent user of good English.”

Time has not been kind to the Daily News’ optimistic prognostication. The proliferation of remedial English on college campuses attests to that sad fact. Even so, the format and its puzzle progeny still have a lot to offer beyond mere entertainment.

Even a quick search of the Internet reveals tens of thousands of puzzles tailored to various fields of study. Historic figures, natural elements, biology, art, music, literature…

are commonplace. Each requires the student to command details of that specialty.

Even simple word composition and spelling have gotten a boost. The popular Internet game, Words With Friends, has risen well beyond its role in getting actor Alec Baldwin a little more press time.

Of course the central value of crossword puzzles will likely remain as pure entertainment. That said, as entertainment goes, crossword puzzles — or anything that requires problem-solving and active engagement — provide a far superior experience than most of what passes for entertainment on television.

There are crossword puzzles appropriate to every age and interest. If you’ve never done one, we suggest you flip over a few pages and give ours a try. You might just find one of life’s simpler, yet profound pleasures as you pencil in that last letter.