This weekend marks the 100th birthday 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. The puzzle didn't immediately catch on, but just over a decade later, it exploded.
In 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." According to Smithsonian Magazine,
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.
In the time since, crossword puzzles have become a beloved morning tradition in many homes. Today's puzzles still fundamentally look a lot like that first puzzle by Wynne, but many aspects of puzzling have changed: how they are constructed, the sorts of clues they contain, and even how (some) puzzlers go about solving them. I spoke with Deb Amlen, writer of Wordplay, the official crossword blog of The New York Times, and humor columnist for Yahoo! Tech, about how our digital age is shaping crossword puzzles. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation (which was conducted in Google Docs) follows.
So perhaps we can just begin with a little bit of the basics. How do crossword puzzles get put together today? Are writers using software? Graph paper? What does the process look like?
Well, everyone is different, of course, but I would say that the vast majority of constructors use some sort of software to at least frame their crossword puzzle. By framing, I mean that although the idea for the theme or some of the really lively entries might be a result of their own creativity, the software gives them a cleaner place to store their ideas and build on them. And I would say that many constructors also fill their puzzles with words and phrases "by hand," even though they are using this software. Many of the software programs have an "autofill" feature where the computer puts in words just because they fit, but that’s frowned upon in the community. The better puzzles have lively entries that constructors save in word lists so that the puzzles are more entertaining.