It was 87 years ago this month when a British journalist named Arthur Wynne published the first crossword puzzle. In the 19th century, versions of what we know today were created as a children’s game, and even Wynne’s first puzzle was diamond shaped rather than rectangular or square, with no black spots.
Wynne’s first puzzle was published in the New York World newspaper on Dec. 21, 1914 and quickly became a popular national pastime. People would wait for their daily newspapers with pencils in hand just so they can tackle the latest puzzle.
But the puzzle fell on hard times from the very beginning and was even accused of being an enemy of the American forces and other Allies during World War II.
The New York Times was the first to scoff. The year after the World published the first crossword puzzle, the New York Times, ever the prestigious and noteworthy piece of journalism, was badmouthing it, scorning it, making fun of it, even calling it sinful. It said it was a craze that would die out and be forgotten within months. All the news that was fit to print didn’t have this story correctly. Nor did they make it right in 1929 when once again they said it was silly and had faded away like a fad.
But once America was at war in 1941, following the Pearl Harbor bombing, the New York Times all of a suddenly decided crosswords were a good thing; they might keep peoples’ minds off the dangers to the country, and even give them something to do during blackouts. Not everyone agreed with them. When the Daily Telegraph in England was printing crossword puzzles for their readers the British Secret Service got suspicious. It looked to them as though secret codes were being passes to the enemy just before D-Day, or Operation Overload, the sixth of June 1944. With words in the puzzle like Utah, Omaha and Overlord, the British secret service was convinced there was something wrong. So wrong in fact, they had the author of those puzzles, a man named Leonard Dawe, arrested and charged with espionage. Further investigation showed, however, he was not guilty of any crime and was found innocent.
Can doing crossword puzzles make you smarter? Possibly. Possibly it makes your brain stronger and helps keep your memory sharp. It has been proven to delay memory loss in dementia patients by two and a half year and it has been shown to help preserve cognitive functions by as much as ten years.
Regardless, today crossword puzzles are the most popular and widespread word game in the world. Most newspapers have a puzzle featured in every issue. And the New York Times, which at first scoffed at the very idea of them, now prides itself on having one of the most difficult series of puzzles of any newspaper in the world.