Crossword Puzzles at 100: From Paper to Digital

The crossword puzzle has come a long way as it celebrated its 100th birthday in December 2013.

tablet use

After 100 years of baffling clues, intriguing themes and head-scratching word use, crossword puzzles are still beloved by legions of fans around the world. And this month, as crossword puzzles celebrated their 100th birthday in December 2013, puzzle writer and editor Ben Tausig commemorated the occasion with his recently published book, The Curious History of the Crossword: 100 Puzzles From Then and Now.

Tausig's 192-page book colorfully describes the history of the crossword, from its first appearance in the now-defunct New York World newspaper on Dec. 21, 1913 to its growing digital presence in 2013 and beyond. That's actually part of the interesting history of the puzzles, as they have been finding new audiences and growing their existing audiences of solvers by morphing into digital versions that can now be played on desktop or mobile computers as well as tablets and even smartphones—for the most dedicated puzzle lovers.

The Curious History of the Crossword is an intriguing look into the start and development of the puzzle genre, from that first New York World puzzle through the decades and innovations that followed, from grid designs to puzzle themes and curious innovations that even shaped crosswords into shapes such as letters of the alphabet. The book also describes how puzzle clues change with the times, and often tie in with current history, culture and headlines, making older puzzle clues tougher for puzzle solvers who try to tackle such grids years later. For example, in the 1960s, BOAC was a popular airline, but it has been defunct for years, leaving new solvers of old puzzles a bit out of the loop.

The book looks at humor in crosswords over the decades, as well as the creative use of esoteric words and phrases that are meant to confound puzzle solvers.

The $17.99 book, published in November 2013 by Race Point Publishing, is also filled with about 100 unique and challenging puzzles from the past 100 years that readers can solve for themselves. They come from well-known puzzle creators such as Will Shortz, Brendan Emmett Quigley, Matt Jones, Cathy Millhauser and Maura Jacobson.

Tausig, 33, a freelance puzzle constructor, lives in New York City and wrote the book after his own work revealed intriguing stories about crosswords and their history.

"I've been writing crosswords now for about 10 years and I've built up a lot of stories and opinions about the way they work and how they evolved," Tausig told eWEEK in a telephone interview. "I wanted to kind of comment on that."

What he has seen, he said, have been gradual changes in how puzzle lovers approach their hobby. "I'm actually in a world that is experimenting with crosswords as a digital medium," he said. Crosswords are still very popular around the world in printed forms, but more and more, puzzle fans are turning to digital puzzles to tackle, according to Tausig.

One such digital puzzle resource is the American Values Club (AVC), an online weekly puzzle source where Tausig serves as editor. The AVC puzzles were formerly published in The Onion A.V. Club section before that six-year-long relationship ended in 2012, he said. The AVC project began as a Kickstarter project that raised more than $26,000 in donations to start the operation.

"We are among the first of all digital crossword puzzle producers, with no print home at all," according to Tausig. "Crosswords are becoming more digitized today. It's not just the technology itself, and it's not just the platforms on which you are able to solve your puzzles." Instead, because puzzle creators can design puzzles using digital means, they can create them quickly to include themes and clues that come right out of today's headlines rather than waiting weeks or months for the puzzles to be published as in years past.

That recent ability to create more timely themes almost instantly is a huge and fun change in the technology, said Tausig. For a puzzle creator in print publications, that kind of flexibility has always been harder to find.

"The way it works with The New York Times crossword is that [a designer sends] a puzzle by mail to [The Times' crossword editor] Will Shortz's house and sometime within about five years he might accept it and run it," said Tausig with a laugh. "You're talking about a long publishing cycle."

In addition to his recent book, Tausig is also the author of Penguin Classics Crossword Puzzles, Gonzo Crosswords and Crosswords from the Underground: 72 Puzzles from Alternative Newspapers.