Here’s a fact for Scrabble Day (April 13th): Scrabble was originally called ‘It’.
It was invented in 1938 by an architect called Alfred Mosher Butts who’d lost his job in New York during the Depression.
Butts noticed that while ‘move’ games (like chess) and ‘number’ games (like bingo) had spawned many variations, ‘word’ games hadn’t moved beyond crosswords and anagrams.
To determine how many tiles there should be and how many points each letter should be worth, he calculated letter frequency on the front page of The New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune and The Saturday Evening Post.
The top 12 letters (e, t, a, o, i, n, s, h, r, d, l, u) account for 80% of all the letters we normally use. In 1934 he turned this knowledge into a new multi-player word game.
For more than a decade he tweaked and tinkered with the rules while trying — and failing — to attract a corporate sponsor.
The Patent Office rejected his application not once, but twice, and on top of that, he couldn’t settle on a name.
From “it”, he switched to “Lexiko,” then “Criss-Cross Words.”
It was a decade later that James Brunot, a young civil servant, asked Butts’ permission to register the patent.
Brunot registered the game as ‘Scrabble’a word meaning “to grope frantically” (from the Dutch “Schrabben”, to scrape or scratch).
He colored some of the squares pink and blue and put Butts on a small royalty.
The first Scrabble factory was an abandoned schoolhouse in rural Connecticut, where Brunot and several friends manufactured 12 games an hour.
It enjoyed modest commercial success until the head of Macy’s played it on his summer holiday in 1953: sales were transformed. In 1954 alone, four million sets were sold – the fastest take-off for a game ever.
Butts also invented a game similar to Scrabble called ‘Alfred’s other game’ – it was not a success.
Every April 13th is Scrabble Day.
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.