Word Power: Remembering Scrabble Inventor Alfred Mosher Butts

Today is National Scrabble Day, so be sure to dust off that old set and spell out a tribute to the man who gave us this enduringly popular game.
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Alfred Mosher Butts

Alfred M. Butts, inventor of the board game 'Scrabble,' is photographed in 1981 in New York City.

Today is National Scrabble Day, and we know you plan to celebrate the occasion by practicing your tile removal technique, memorizing the two-letter words from the Official Scrabble Dictionary, and challenging that shifty-eyed gentleman next to you on the train to settle once and for all just who reigns as the overlord of the quiet car! 

Or maybe not. Still, it's a good time to recall the man who conceived this enduringly popular game, providing countless hours of quality family time and unnecessary anxiety for those unfortunate souls who keep waiting for a lousy "U" to finally reveal itself.

Alfred Mosher Butts was born on this day in 1899 in Poughkeepsie, New York. The son of a lawyer and a high school teacher, he was a bright child who became editor of his high school newspaper. After studying architecture at Pratt Institute and the University of Pennsylvania, he found a job with the New York City firm of Arthur C. Holden & Associates.

Laid off during the Great Depression, Alfred turned to the idea of inventing a new game, both as a means of providing a distraction for other struggling families and as a possible source of income. Settling on a format of selecting letters to form words, he meticulously tallied the frequency of letters on the pages of publications to calculate the ideal distribution and give his creation "a proper speed and snap." The early iteration, which had no board, was unveiled in 1933 as "Lexiko." 

Alfred Butts' letter frequencies

Alfred Butts tabulated the frequency of letters in words of various length, using examples in a dictionary, the Saturday Evening Post, the Herald Tribune, and the New York Times. This was used to design the game Scrabble.

Alfred tried to engage the interest of game companies like Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, to no avail, so he manufactured the tiles himself and sold Lexiko out of his Queens apartment. Meanwhile, he enlisted friends and family members to play, spread the word and help tinker with the rules. 

In 1938, Alfred came out with a new and improved version called "Criss-Cross Words." This one featured a board with premium squares for double- and triple-letter words, and assigned point values to letters based on frequency. Criss-Cross Words remained anathema to the big game companies, and, fortunately, it didn't matter so much since Alfred had been rehired by Holden & Associates. Still, he remained hopeful that someone would throw his creation a lifeline by taking over the legwork of manufacturing and marketing.

The lifeline came in 1947, when a welfare agent and budding entrepreneur named James Brunot contacted Alfred about the rights to Criss-Cross Words. Alfred agreed to hand things over in exchange for a small royalty on sales, and Brunot set about tweaking its design and name. In 1948, Scrabble was formally introduced to the masses. 

Following years of sluggish sales, the tipping point came in 1952, reportedly after Macy's president Jack Straus discovered the game and demanded it be carried in his stores. By 1954, sales had exploded to nearly 4 million sets, including 100,000 in foreign languages.

Pleased but astounded by the overwhelming success of his creation, Alfred received some recognition as the inventor of the new game craze sweeping the nation. He also pocketed a healthy income from royalties, topping out at more than $80,000 in 1955. He used the extra money to buy back an old family home in Stanfordville, New York, but retained his day job, and otherwise was said to remain the same unassuming man who enjoyed puzzles and quiet time with his wife, Nina. In the early 1970s, he and Brunot sold out the game to Selchow & Righter.

In the years after Nina died in 1979, Alfred achieved another round of celebrity as his creation reached new heights via the launch of a game show and the National Scrabble Championship. Selchow & Righter came out with a Solitaire version of Scrabble, marketed under the questionable name of "Alfred's Other Game" and an even more questionable cover of the octogenarian posing with a starlet, a la Hugh Hefner. The game lacked staying power, but Alfred remained a revered figure within Scrabble's extensive circles, and continued to appear at sanctioned tournaments.

Hospitalized following a car accident in 1987, Alfred spent most of his remaining days in a nursing home. By the time of his death in 1993, sales had topped 100 million units worldwide.

The appeal of the game remains strong, as evidenced by the existence of organizations like the North American Scrabble Players Association, an annual world championship and even the popularity of knockoffs like Words With Friends. It's unclear who conceived National Scrabble Day and when, but that's probably fitting, given the quiet obscurity in which its inventor toiled for most of his life.

So remember to celebrate this American success story by dusting off an old game, whether it's a standard one with missing tiles, a cracked travel set, or a deluxe version with a stubborn turntable. And if you find yourself sitting with the dreaded "Q" for endless turns, perpetually teasing you with the promise of spelling "quack" or some other treasure, remember to keep calm. Alfred would have wanted it that way.