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December 2, 2013

Happy 100th to the crossword puzzle

On a snowy evening in the early 1900s, a newspaper editor at the New York World was hunched over his desk trying to think of something special for the Christmas issue.

Remembering the small word squares he'd solved as a young Brit in Liverpool, he drew a diamond-shaped grid with numbered squares and numbered clues. It contained 32 words, and his simple instruction read: "Fill in the small squares with words which agree with the following definitions."

The puzzle appeared Dec. 21, 1913, and what 42-year-old Arthur Wynne had created was the first crossword puzzle.

It was an instant success. Mail poured in. Readers didn't mind that the first puzzle contained some very unusual words, such as NEIF, TANE, NEVA and NARD. Or that the word DOVE appeared twice, once clued as"a bird" and once as "a pigeon." Or that the most unusual word was DOH, defined as "the fibre of the gomuti palm," a clue that, if it appeared today, would elicit much the same reaction from solvers as it would from Homer Simpson.

Seeing the crossword's popularity, Wynne pushed for the newspaper to copyright it, but his bosses, who included two of Joseph Pulitzer's sons, considered the crossword a passing trifle. New York Times editorials labeled them a waste of time.

After just a few years, Wynne's interest waned. He still made crosswords, but he also accepted reader submissions, becoming the country's first crossword editor as well. By 1921, after eight years as captain of the crossword, Wynne handed the wheel to someone else.

That someone was a Smith grad named Margaret Petherbridge, a World secretary who had hopes of being a journalist. Like almost everyone on the staff, she was utterly uninterested in the crossword and simply picked the ones that had interesting shapes. She never tried solving one.

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