Obituary: Alfred Butts

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Alfred Mosher Butts, architect and inventor: born 1900; died Rhinebeck, New York 4 April 1993.

ALFRED BUTTS was one of those men whose invention, the word-game Scrabble, became bigger than he would ever be.

An out-of-work architect from Poughkeepsie with time on his hands in Thirties New York, Butts turned his attentions to more leisurely pursuits. He was keen on words and games, a talented artist and illustrator, and desperate for money. His creation was born in 1933. 'Lexico' was a big hit with his friends and Butts was convinced that it was commercially viable. Over the next 16 years it was called 'Criss-Crosswords', 'It' and 'Alph' (a play on Butts's first name). A product placement agency came up with the final name and Butts and his partner Jim Brunot launched 'Scrabble' on to the US market in 1949; it sold a modest 8,500 sets in the first year. Things really took off in 1952 when Jack Strauss, the manager of Macy's department store, in New York, played the game on holiday. He stormed back to work demanding to know why Macy's was not stocking Scrabble. He placed an order and backed it up with a weighty advertising campaign. The game has not looked back.

Scrabble was launched in the UK in 1954 by JW Spear & Sons, of Enfield. The company have been producing the game ever since and export the game to 90 countries from their north London factory. Fifty-three per cent of British households own a set and there are very few people that have not at least had some cursory tangle with the Triple Letter Score. Scrabble is now sold in 24 languages world-wide, from Arabic to Russian, with plans afoot for three more, including Japanese. In addition to the original version, Scrabble is made in Travel, De-Luxe, Pocket, Giant, Dice and Junior formats. There is even a Braille version.

Scrabble players from all over the world will compete in New York this year for the title of World Scrabble Champion and a first prize of dollars 10,000. These are serious players who will learn thousands of words before competing, including the essential list of around 100 two-letter words. There are 250 Scrabble clubs in Britain, with 5,000 players who regularly forgather.

It may be easy to pass Scrabble off as a trifle, an interesting folly which fills a spare half-hour. However, as I sat slouched in front of my television last week watching Scrabble being played in a sitcom on BBC 2, I wondered whether Butts's contribution had not been rather more significant. The central character, having tried a range of other methods, was using a game of Scrabble to win over the affections of his prospective stepchildren. A simple scenario perhaps but, television being a mirror on life, the example demonstrates the values that Scrabble has come to represent.

Scrabble is a game which bridges the age-gap. It can be played at any level from children testing out their first words to world champions. As we enter what has been called in the United States the 'Nintendo Age', it seems reassuring that Scrabble sales indicate that there is still a place for traditional family games.