Word Builder

As summer holidays approach so do memories of vacation pastimes with family and friends. One favourite pastime for us was games of Scrabble—the word building game that made us focus, squabble and compete for points as we triumphantly built words with triple scoring letters, or bemoaned the fact that we were left with all vowels, or no vowels, to build our words.

Scrabble is one of the games that is universally known and popular across continents and languages.

The story of Scrabble is an interesting one. In 1924, a young man Alfred Mosher Butts graduated from University of Pennsylvania’s school of architecture. It was a time when New York’s skyline was rising upwards, and the young architect joined a prestigious New York firm where he was assigned to design elegant country homes for the rich. In just five years the bubble burst, and as the economy crashed, the United States was plunged into the Great Depression. Butts was among the millions who lost their jobs. He was just 32 years old, and his career path looked hazy.

Butts had always loved word games and games of strategy like crosswords and chess. Crossword puzzles were already a popular pastime in the United States in the 1920s. Alfred Butts noticed that a new game called Monopoly was becoming very popular, and was also commercially successful. He found that there was no word game in the market. Butt began toying with the idea of developing a word game that combined both skill and chance. He began by studying the front page of The New York Times to calculate how frequently each letter of the alphabet was used. He found that just 12 letters (E, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, D, L and U) accounted for 80% of the letters that are normally used.  Butt used his analysis and his free ‘unemployed’ time to develop a word game that involved knowledge, strategy and chance. He cut 100 wooden tiles by hand, each with a letter of the alphabet, and drew a grid of squares on a playing board. Each letter had points assigned. The players had to draw nine letter tiles, which were placed face down, at random, and arrange these to form words on the squares. The first players were Alfred Butts, his wife Nina and their friends. Nina, as it turned out, knew more words and had better spelling than her inventor husband, and always scored more than him. As Alfred admitted “she beat me at my own game,” literally.

Alfred could invent an interesting game, but just could not find the right name for it. He first called it Lexico, then changed the name to IT, then to Criss Cross and then Criss Cross Words, but none of them really clicked. He was equally unsuccessful in trying to register the trademark of his new game. In 1933 he approached all the major games manufacturers, but they rejected the game. Butts in the meanwhile, continued to innovate—he made a15x15 square board for the game, and added values to some of the squares to double and triple the score of the letter placed on them; he reduced the number of tiles to be picked at a time to 7. He even manufactured 200 sets himself, and offered them at $2 a set plus 25 cents for shipping. But the big games manufacturers were still not interested. By then Butts had been reemployed as an architect and could no longer spend as much time on further promoting his game. But the game continued to played by his friends.

One of these friends who had bought one of Butt’s handmade sets had a friend called James Brunot who was impressed by the game. Brunot offered to make and sell the game. In 1948 Butts sold the management of the game’s production to Bruno, but he retained the patent, and it was agreed that he would receive royalties on the sales. Bruno made modifications to the game, changing the colours on the board, and the scoring system. He also came up with the name SCRABBLE a word meaning ‘to scrape or grope around frantically with your hands’ from the Dutch ‘schrabben’ to scrape or scratch. Brunot trademarked Scrabble in December 1948.

Even under Brunot the game had a shaky start. Just as Butts had done more than a decade earlier, the first sets were hand produced, initially in Brunot’s own house and then in an abandoned schoolhouse by his wife and friends, laboriously stamping out one letter at a time on wooden tiles. Thus the production was slow; in 1949 they produced 2400 sets; and lost money, but the game was gaining in popularity. 

The breakthrough came in the early 1952 when, as the story goes, the chairman of Macy’s, one of New York’s biggest department stores saw the game being played when he was on vacation. On his return he was surprised to discover that Macy’s did not stock this game, and he immediately placed a large order. The game was an instant hit; within a year everyone ‘had to have one’, and Scrabble sets had to be were rationed in stores around the United States.

Meanwhile, the Brunots had to cope with the escalating demand by expanding their production facilities. The popularity and demand snowballed so rapidly that the production and marketing had to be taken to a different level of commerce, with different companies getting into the venture. In 1955 the game crossed the Atlantic and began to sell in the UK.

The rest as they say is history. It took over two decades for Butt’s Criss-Cross Words to make it big. Scrabble is now available in 31 languages and sold in 121 countries worldwide. Over one hundred and fifty million sets of Scrabble have been sold. The Scrabble craze spawned a number of other commercial enterprises—dictionaries, books on strategy, tournaments, and more.

Unlike the inventor of the safety pin, Butts did earn royalties on his invention, which it is believed were about three cents a set. Butt said ‘One-third went to taxes, I gave one-third away, and the other third enabled me to have an enjoyable life’ until he died at the age of 93 on 4 April 1993. Butt spent a creative life; he designed buildings, he was a painter, and a stamp collector. He also continued to invent board games, including one called Alfred’s Other Game, when he was in his eighties. But he is best remembered as the inventor of Scrabble. And his birthday on 13 April is celebrated in the USA as National Scrabble Day.

A good time to pull out that old Scrabble board and build some words!

–Mamata