How the Cipher of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold Bug inspired Scrabble

scrabble gameOne of the most popular word games of today is Scrabble.  Like Monopoly, almost everyone has at least heard of the game Scrabble, and recognizes the letter tiles and board used for play. What might not be known is the invention of Scrabble was inspired by the Cipher used in Edgar Allan Poe’s treasure hunt story, The Gold Bug.

During the Depression in the 1930’s, Alfred Butts came upon the idea of creating a game to sell for extra income.  He too was looking for some treasure.  After categorizing current games in the market into Strategy, Number, and Word games, he set off to develop a Word game because it seemed to him this category was lacking at the time.

But what exactly should it involve? How will players play?  How will players win?

Alfred Butts was working as a statistician at the same time he was thinking about these questions, and so when he read The Gold Bug by Edgar Allan Poe, something clicked.  Poe’s story included a cipher, that once solved, revealed the location of a treasure hidden by the infamous Pirate known as Captain Kidd.  The character, Legrand, in the story, was able to break the cipher by realizing certain symbols appeared more often than others in the cipher, and connected this circumstance to how certain letters appear more often in words.

In The Gold Bug’s story, Legrand notes the most popular letter in the English language is the letter E.  He goes on to list other letters in descending order according to their occurrence in words.  Doing so enabled him to decipher the secret message (which itself wasn’t revealed until heat was put forth on the parchment it was written on).  But anyway, after deciphering the message he was able to find the treasure.

Alfred Butts table of letter frequencies

Inspired by the story, and putting his skills as a statistician to work, Alfred determined his own frequency of occurrence for letters by counting words, and their letters, from such pages of the New York Times and Saturday Evening Post.

He then applied a scoring system to letters in a game based off the research sparked by The Gold Bug. His first game using this innovative scoring system was not Scrabble though.  It was a game called Lexiko (lexicos is Greek for ‘words’). This game did not involve any board, but did consist of cardboard ‘letter tiles’ worth points according to their frequency.  The object of Lexiko was to score the most points by picking and discarding letter tiles and forming the most ‘high scoring word’ in your ‘hand’ of 10.

Even though Butts sold a few Lexiko games, he continued to develop his idea.  Later, with the help of a gentleman named James Brunot, and after years of tweaking initial ideas and thoughts, Scrabble was eventually developed.  Butts was finally able to realize Scrabble as a household hit in the early 50’s.  Years after the first spark and inspiration.

Perseverance wins the game every time, and brings treasures to those who do.

 

Best of luck with all you seek!   Always Treasure the Adventure!

 

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8 Responses

  1. Waterhigh says:

    Thanks for the history. I’ve always loved playing Scrabble, and Poe could tell a story.

  2. Jdiggins says:

    Shame on Me! I knew not of this! Thanks Jenny, it was very interesting! 🙂

  3. Nate Beck says:

    Awesome Jenny!

    I explored Poe’s ‘The Gold Bug’ years ago, but was put off because MUCH of the novel has lines of cipher that made it a bit cumbersome to read and I didn’t think I’d be able to understand it.

    Pretty cool it inspired a game like Scrabble 🙂

  4. Crimsonblaze says:

    My wife is the champion scrabble player. But unless you have a dictionary handy it’s hard to contest her words.

  5. Crimsonblaze says:

    I like spam cubed and fried with eggs and salsa slow cooked over an open campfire. Maybe I should ask for that rule book. I Think maybe f and my wife use the same book. I’m going to have to have a talk with her I see.

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