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The name has become synonymous with twisted logic and distorted meanings... not to mention Inspector Morse1! The Times Crossword (The Times is a well-known, British 'broadsheet' newspaper) is a grid-based word game in which solvers are asked to fill words into the blanks, with the aid of a series of numbered (subdivided into across and down) 'cryptic' clues provided. To the uninitiated these clues often appear strange and unintelligible. This is partly because although clues are often deliberately constructed to resemble recognisable English phrases, the logic behind the solutions is completely different.
In the early 21st Century the crossword is a standard of most dailies and Sunday papers alike. Crossword books and similar word puzzle collections usually get the best part of a row to themselves in an average British newsagent and they are no less popular in many other countries around the world. Yet the crossword as we know it is a relatively modern pastime, not yet a hundred years old at the time of writing. That is, although there certainly are examples of similar word-games in the 19th Century, the first crossword published in a newspaper is credited to a journalist of British origin working in New York early in the 20th Century.
A Modern Phenomenon
On 21 December, 1913, Arthur Wynne, the Liverpudlian editor of the fun section of the New York World, published the first officially recognised crossword puzzle. This first incarnation was actually called a 'word-cross', later changed to 'cross-word' and finally as the modern 'crossword'. The earliest grids were not rectangular but diamond-shaped, with words filled in vertically and horizontally but no blacked-out squares. A list of clues was provided and one word in the grid filled in to get the solver started. Although the formula was an immediate success for the New York World no other daily ran a crossword until the mid-1920s.
This is when Dick Simon and Lincoln Schuster got together to set up a publishing company and chose as their first publication a collection of Wynne's puzzles from the archives of the New York World's fun section. The collection was an instant smash and in the latter half of the 1920's crossword fever swept the US. Even the world of fashion took up the theme, with crossword motifs appearing on the latest designs! By the end of the decade there was a crossword puzzle in every US daily newspaper and millions of people were hooked.
Meanwhile, Back in Europe...
Crosswords had been frowned upon when they first appeared in Europe, seen as a distraction to workers and blamed for reductions in production levels. With the phenomenal success of the formula in the US, however, British papers decided to give it a try, and on 2 January, 1930, the first crossword appeared in the weekly edition of The Times. No more than a few weeks after the first puzzle was published, a letter to the editor was received from a Lieutenant Commander AC Powell, RN, requesting a re-print in the daily edition. The initial request was followed up by a flood of support for the idea and before the end of the month, on 23 January, 1930, Lt Com Powell got his wish and the crossword was reprinted in the daily edition. Indeed, it was accompanied by the news that as of 1 February, there would be a new puzzle every day.
The new daily puzzle was set by Adrian Bell, son of the then news editor of The Observer, Robert Bell. When Bell junior, who had fled the capital for the freedom of working on a farm in Norfolk, pointed out that he knew nothing whatsoever about crosswords, his father is said to have replied, 'You have 10 days to learn'. Adrian Bell continued to compile The Times crosswords until his death in 1978, notching up some 5000 puzzles in that time.
A Very British Crossword
Bell was among the compilers who gave The Times crossword its distinctive cryptic style. He would try to think up clues that deliberately misled solvers while providing a perfectly valid, if somewhat obscure definition of the true answer. Over the years a series of conventions developed that allowed solvers quickly to recognise certain elements of the clue.
The first and longest serving editor of the crossword was Ronald Carton, who continued to carry out his functions until his death in 1960. He was succeeded by his wife Jane, who had long acted as her husband's assistant in both compiling and editing the puzzles.
During these early years, The Times crossword, largely as a result of the lateral thinking of the compilers, became more and more focused on cryptic clues. Many were simply misleading but accurate. For example, the apparent meaning was not at all the solution but the solution did fit the clue. Over the years a system of rules for cryptic puzzles developed and were eventually laid down by AF Ritchie and DS Macnutt.
The Modern Times Crossword
Edmund Akenhead took over as editor from Jane Carton in 1965 and is credited with giving the crossword the form we would recognise today. He also organised the first Times Crossword Championship in 1970. When Akenhead retired in 1983 John Grant took over, editing the crossword for 12 years. Long-standing compiler Brian Greer took over the editorship when Grant left in 1995.
The Times Crossword Championship
The first Times Crossword Championship was held in 1970, attracting 20,000 correct solutions to the qualifier crosswords spread over the daily editions for the month of May. This unexpected mass of successful entries forced the organisers to devise a series of eliminator puzzles to get the numbers down to more manageable proportions. The first winner was a Foreign Office diplomat named Roy Dean. One particularly noteworthy champion was John Sykes, winner on ten occasions. In fact, he could probably have won several more times but for the fact that he more than once agreed not to enter the championship to give other solvers a chance! Another notable result was that of Guy Haslam in 1992 - Haslam, then editor of The Puzzler magazine, was just 29 at the time! The competition is alive and well today, attracting considerable numbers of entries at the regional level and impressive standards in the finals.
Today the Times crossword is enjoyed by many, despite a reputation for being incomprehensible to the uninitiated. If you count yourself among that number - Don't Panic! h2g2 has a wonderfully comprehensive guide to solving the UK's favourite brain-teaser at How to Solve the Times Crossword. If you use it, you may be able to work out what the answer to this little cryptic critter:
Two dozen figures reverse the answer on this website. (5-3)