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Wordle — don't forget your roots. 'The Puzzler' details puzzle fads through time

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's so much publicity now about a certain word game that features yellow and green tiles. Well, A.J. Jacobs says that Wordle is far from the first puzzle craze to catch the national imagination. A.J., of course, is a friend of this program, and we can usually count on hearing from him when he has a book to promote. A.J. Jacobs, thanks very much for being with us.

A J JACOBS: (Laughter) Thank you for letting me promote my book, which is available for pre-order. It won't be out till April.

SIMON: All right. All right. We'll get to that. It's called "The Puzzler," right?

JACOBS: Right - "One Man's Quest To Solve The Most Baffling Puzzles Ever" - and it goes on.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, tell us about previous puzzles, if you could.

JACOBS: Right. Well, I am a huge fan of Wordle, but, as you say, it's not the first puzzle craze ever. There have been a bunch of them over the centuries. One of my favorites is the Wordle of the 1880s, and this was called the 15 puzzle. You might know it. It's the little square with 15 tiles and an empty space, and you have to rearrange the tiles to make them in numerical order.

SIMON: Mmm hmm.

JACOBS: This was invented by a postal worker, and it soon became a national mania. And preachers warned about its dangers, and The New York Times wrote an editorial calling it a pestilence and a fearful vice because it was so addictive. And actually, there's - my favorite part is that there was a 15-puzzle scam. This happened because there was a famous puzzle-maker who was the Will Shortz of his day. But unlike Will, he was kind of shady. He sold a version of the 15 puzzle and held a contest and said he'd pay a thousand dollars to anyone who could solve it. The catch was, he put it in an order that was impossible to solve.

SIMON: Oh.

JACOBS: So he never had - yes.

SIMON: Oh, my word.

JACOBS: Exactly.

SIMON: Is there any evidence that Grover Cleveland played this puzzle or anything like that? I'm just guessing from the time frame.

JACOBS: I can't - I have other celebrities in other segments for you. I know Napoleon was...

SIMON: Yeah.

JACOBS: ...A big fan of Tangrams, which was another craze. That one was in the 1810s or so - 1817. And the Tangram - it was called the Chinese puzzle back then, but you might know it. It's the little wooden shapes and - triangles and the squares, and you have to arrange them into figures like a bird or a boat. And it was invented in China centuries ago, but when it was imported to Europe in the 1800s, it became a sensation.

SIMON: And, of course, we should mention the crossword. I mean, it hasn't always been with us, has it?

JACOBS: No. The crossword - the first one appeared in 1913 in The New York World, but it really became a craze in the '20s. So it appeared in hundreds of newspapers - weirdly, not The New York Times. They had a bunch of articles about what a menace it was. Crosswords led to a prison riot and a murder.

SIMON: Oh, my.

JACOBS: And they made you go nearsighted. And they finally buckled in 1942, but most people already were into them. There was a Broadway show in the '20s. There was a song, a hit song called "Cross-Word Mamma, You Puzzle Me (But Papa's Gonna Figure You Out)."

SIMON: We should note, of course, yes, The New York Times has certainly changed their mind about puzzles and has recently acquired Wordle. A.J., given your deeply superficial research, what do you think makes a puzzle catch on?

JACOBS: (Laughter) Well, I think puzzles, like many things, are contagious. And once you get a critical mass of people who are doing it, then the fear of missing out kicks in.

SIMON: Ah.

JACOBS: And everyone wants to do it, and it becomes a communal thing. And actually, that's one of the big themes of my book. Puzzles are a force for good.

SIMON: Yeah.

JACOBS: They're not just good for sharpening your thinking, but they are a communal activity, and they bring people together. And, you know, on Twitter, it is just so full of vitriol. So these little yellow and green tiles, it's just a welcome respite.

SIMON: Yeah. A.J. Jacobs' book forthcoming, "The Puzzler: One Man's Quest To Solve The Most Baffling Puzzles Ever From Crosswords To Jigsaws To The Meaning Of Life" - to the meaning of life? Why am I just catching up on this? That's a puzzle?

JACOBS: (Laughter) That's the ultimate puzzle.

SIMON: It is the ultimate puzzle. The book comes out in April. A.J., thanks so much for being with us.

JACOBS: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF COTTON JONES SONG, "SOME STRANGE RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.