David Singmaster, best-known as a puzzle expert (particularly famous for his solution to the Rubik’s cube), but also retired professor of mathematics at London South Bank University, has collected a considerable amount of source material on mathematical games and puzzles.
In his commentary on the material he has collected concerning the simple game called Noughts and Crosses (or Tick-tack-toe’) he says:
“Popular belief is that the game is ancient and universal. However the game appears to have evolved from earlier three‑in‑a‑row games, e.g. Nine Holes or Three Men’s Morris, in the early 19C. The game is not mentioned in Strutt nor most other 19C books on games, not even in Kate Greenaway’s Book of Games (1889), nor in Halliwell’s section on slate games, but there may be an 1875 description in Strutt-Cox of 1903.
Babbage refers to it in his unpublished MSS of c1820 as a children’s game, but without giving it a name. In 1842, he calls it Tit Tat To and he uses slight variations on this name in his extended studies of the game.
The [Oxford English Dictionary]’s earliest references are: 1849 for Tip‑tap‑toe; 1855 for Tit‑tat‑toe; 1861 for Oughts and Crosses. However, the first two entries may be referring to some other game – e.g. the entries for Tick‑tack‑toe for 1884 & 1899 are clearly to the game that Gomme calls Tit‑tat‑toe. Von der Lasa cites a 1838-39 Swedish book for Tripp, Trapp, Trull. Van der Linde (1874, op. cit. in 5.F.1) gives Tik, Tak, Tol as the Dutch name.”
He has thus found no evidence for the game before 1820 at the earliest, and very little evidence of popularity until later in the 19th century. Yet many writers in the 19th century refer to it as a ‘children’s game’ or a ‘boys game’, and not as a novelty.
It would be surprising if the game was a relatively modern version of the older smaller Merells (or Three Man’s Morris), as it appears to be simpler than it – and this runs counter to the general evolution of games. In addition, the fact that the game was known in the 19th century in regions which did not have much communication with each other (Sweden and England) tends to imply an older origin. There is no record of the game having originated in one of these countries and being exported to the other.
So the questions remain: is the game older than the 19th century, and if so are there any other records of it earlier than Babbage’s?