On this day in 1899, a guy named Alfred Mosher Butts was born. What did he do? He invented Scrabble, the word-forming crossword-like board game that’s been extremely popular for more than 50 years.
The Great Depression
Butts came up with the basic idea for Scrabble—a board game where players took turns drawing letter tiles to form words to score points—during the Great Depression. The artist and architect originally called in Lexiko (as in “lexicon”) and then Criss-Cross Words.
How Butts created the points system
In addition to certain spots on the board affording players “triple letter score,” “double word score,” and the like, each letter tile carries a certain number of points. Butts came up with the system by taking the front page of an issue of the New York Times and counting how many times each letter of the alphabet appeared. He determined that the letters that occurred the most—such as E or T—would only be worth 1 point and be represented on the most tiles. Infrequent and harder to use letters—like Z and Q—were relatively rare, so Butts made them worth 10 points.
He didn’t get a trademark for the game until the late 1930s, which is about when he brought on a business partner, a friend named James Brunot. It was Brunot who thought up the name Scrabble.
Made by hand
Brunot also provided the garage where he and Butts made copies of the game by hand for about two decades. But in 1957, when the Macy’s department store chain made a huge Scrabble order, Butts and Brunot sold the operation to game-maker Selchow and Righter…who eventually sold it to toy company Coleco…who then sold it to toy conglomerate Hasbro.
Players who use all seven of their tiles to form a single word on one turn get a 50 point bonus. In Scrabble parlance, it’s called a “bingo.” Talk about a bingo, though. The most points possible in a turn of Scrabble: 1,782. To get that, a player would have to form the word oxyphenbutazone (it’s an anti-inflammatory drug) while also hitting three “triple word score” squares.
One third of all homes
Today, it’s estimated that a third of all American homes contain a copy of Scrabble. In the U.K., it can be found in more than half of all households.
The Official Scrabble Dictionary
Words allowed in Scrabble play are listed in The Official Scrabble Dictionary. The 2014 edition added a bunch of new words, including “hashtag,” “selfie,” “vlog,” “mojito,” “chillax,” and “beatbox.” It also reintroduced the word “da,” which appeared in the first Scrabble Dictionary but was deleted in all subsequent editions.
Adapted for TV
In 1984, Scrabble became one of the few board games to be adapted into a TV game show. Here’s a clip from a teen celebrity episode featuring Soleil Moon Frye from Punky Brewster.