December 20 – Getting cross

Today’s factismal: The world’s first modern crossword puzzle appeared in the New York World on December 21, 1913.

Anthropologists insist that wordplay and puzzles are as old as language. And ancient artifacts, such as the Sator Square from Pompeii (named for the phrase it contains “SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS”; placed with each word above the other, it reads the same in every direction), bear them out. But perhaps the most common form of modern wordplay is only a century old; the world’s first “true” crossword puzzle appeared in the New York World on midwinter day in 1913 and was written by Arthur Wynne.

There had been previous puzzles that looked a lot like the crossword, with blanks to fill in words or clues running up and across. But Wynne was the first to put together a puzzle that had all of the elements of a modern puzzle. It featured an interlocking, symmetrical design with no more than 1/6th of the area given over to blank squares and used common words with few abbreviations. Wynne’s diversionary puzzle was mildly popular, but it wasn’t a run-away hit until 1924.

That’s when Richard Simon (of Simon and Schuster fame) heard from his aunt that she liked doing crossword puzzles. He put together a small book of them as a favor for her and tried selling the book to the public. He didn’t think that it would do very well, so he only had 3,600 copies printed. Those sold out in a week. By the end of the year, more than 100,000 copies of the book had sold and Simon had commissioned a second book of puzzles. (No word on if he ever thanked his aunt.)

Of course puzzles are still just as much fun today as they were in 1913. And the great thing about today’s puzzles is that they can do more than entertain; they can also help science! For example, there is the puzzle game Phylo. In this game, DNA sequences are represented by little colored blocks. Your goal is to align the sequences in different DNA strands; the more you align, the higher your score is. The game starts of easy but gets progressively more difficult. And, like very good game out there, it allows you to compete with other players to get the highest score. (Right now, marie_s is the leader with a score of 918.) If you’d like to try this puzzle, then head on over to:

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