Battleship and the Choppy Waters of Public Domain

Far more intricate than the script of Battleship, exploding today on screens across America after an earlier international start, is the matter of how the source board game came to be.

When people this weekend Google – “Who invented Battleship?” – they’re likely to get a lot of search returns featuring the name Clifford Von Wickler. But a little further research suggests that like President Obama’s Kenyan birth certificate, this starting point may be entirely bogus. Per game aficianado Theodor Lauppert:

According to many sources Battleship was invented around 1900 by one Clifford Von Wickler, who however never patented it. This is highly unlikely, since the name Clifford Von Wickler itself is unlikely, and pen-and-paper games typically played by kids at school rarely have a traceable inventor.

The rule variations in the different countries point to a traditional, not invented game. The name might be a misspelling of Clifford Van Wickler; at least one family Van Wickler exists, and since it has an American branch, the first name Clifford would be plausible as well. Some articles indeed state the name of the inventor as Clifford Van Wickler, but no man of that name is ever mentioned outside the context of Battleship.

According to the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, MA, the first commercial version of this circa-World War I public domain diversion was released in 1931 as Salvo: The Game of Wits.

[Photo courtesy: National Heritage Museum]