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By Eric Shackle

Arthur Wynne, the English-born New York journalist who invented the crossword puzzle in 1913, would be astonished to see how computers are being used to generate today's cryptic crosswords, and amazed at the latest development, in which addicts are challenged to solve crosswords on the Internet.

His invention has become the world's most popular word game, attracting millions of devotees, and has boosted the sales of newspapers, magazines, dictionaries, notepads, pencils, and erasers for for nearly 90 years.

Wynne had the job of creating puzzles for the New York World's eight-page Fun section when the editor asked him to invent a new word game. He recalled a puzzle from his childhood called Magic Squares, in which a given group of words had to be arranged so their letters would read the same way across and down. He designed a larger and more complex grid, and provided a clue for each word.

The World published Wynne's first Word-cross puzzle on December 21, 1913  as one of the Fun section's "mental exercises." It was diamond-shaped, with easy clues. It was an instant winner, soon adopted by other newspapers.

Wynne experimented with different shapes, including a circle, before settling on the rectangle. The word-cross became known as a cross-word, and as with many hyphenated words, the hyphen was eventually dropped.

By 1923, crosswords were being published in most of the leading American newspapers, and the craze soon reached England. Before long, almost all the dailies in the United States and Great Britain had a crossword feature of some kind.

Crossword fever swept both nations.  The puzzles were so popular in the 1920s  that songs  were written about them, with such titles as Cross Word Puzzle Blues, Cross Word Mamma You Puzzle Me (But Papa's Gonna Figure You Out), Since Ma's Gone Crazy Over Cross Word Puzzles, and Cross Words Between Sweetie and Me (with ukulele accompaniment).

The New York Times was the only American major daily newspaper to refuse to include such puzzles (it had also shunned comic strips). However, in 1924 its editor wrote: "All ages, both sexes, highbrows and lowbrows, at all times and in all places, even in restaurants and in subways, pore over the diagrams."

Eighteen years later, the New York Times' Sunday edition printed its first crossword, and in September 1950 the puzzle became a daily feature as well. Since then, the New York Times  has become "the standard of excellence in American puzzling."

Today, crosswords are found in almost every country using the Roman alphabet, and in many languages. They are regarded as both a pastime and an interesting means of improving the vocabulary. Crossword clues make use of spelling puns, spoken puns, and accidental letter sequences in words and phrases, so anyone able to solve a crossword puzzle in a second language can certainly claim fluency.

In the 1992 election campaign, Will Shortz, crossword editor of the New York Times, visited the then-candidate Bill Clinton's Manhattan hotel room, with a specially-constructed puzzle. They  chatted for a few minutes about crosswords when Clinton noticed the puzzle, clicked on his watch timer and started solving the puzzle. However, he was soon disturbed  by an urgent phone call.

In an interview for Brill's Content Magazine, New York, Shortz recalled the event: "So he clicks off his watch timer and goes over to the telephone and he's talking animatedly and a few minutes into the call I hear his timer click on again and I look over and, in astonishment, I see, while he's talking on the phone, he's continuing to solve the puzzle."

When Clinton finished the call, Shortz checked the puzzle for accuracy. "It was absolutely perfect and he had finished it in six minutes and 54 seconds," said Shortz. "Whatever else you can say about Bill Clinton, he's a very talented crossword solver."

One of the most controversial puzzles appeared in the New York Times on Election Day in 1996. The clue to the middle answer across the grid was Lead story in tomorrow's newspaper.  The answer appeared to be CLINTON ELECTED. Because of intentional ambiguity in the crossing clues, however, the answer could also have been BOB DOLE ELECTED. Either answer fitted. For example, the crossing clue Black Halloween animal could have been either BAT or CAT, with the C for CLINTON or the B the start of BOB DOLE.

Shortz said: "It was the most amazing crossword I've ever seen. As soon as it appeared, my telephone started ringing. Most people said 'How dare you presume that Clinton will win!' And the people who filled in BOB DOLE thought we'd made a whopper of a mistake!"

Shortz wrote the Riddler's puzzles for the 1995 film Batman Forever. He is the only man in the world to have a degree in enigmatology. He designed the course himself at Indiana University in the early 1970s.

In London, the first Times Crossword Championship took place in 1970, attracting 20,000 entries. It was won by Roy Dean, a diplomat. Eight years later, in America, 161 contestants competed in the 1st Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut -  the nation's first crossword tournament in 43 years.

Finally, here's a great piece of crossword trivia: the world's largest crossword was published in 1982 by  Robert Turcot of Quebec, Canada. It offered 12,489 clues across and 13,125 down. A few determined fans are still trying to fill in its 82,951 squares.

Copyright 2002   Eric Shackle   Story first posted February 2002

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