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Top 5 Interesting Facts About The Mechanical Turk

“Tis a deception! granted, but such a one as does honour to human nature; a deception more beautiful, more surprising, more astonishing, than any to be met with in the different accounts of mathematical recreations.” – Karl Gottlieb von Windisch 1784

In the 1770’s, an inventor by the name of Wolfgang von Kempelen showcased his latest creation in Vienna: a chess-playing automaton made for the Habsburg Archduchess Maria Theresa. Known later as the Mechanical Turk—or just the Turk—the machine consisted of a mechanical man dressed in robes and a turban who sat at a wooden cabinet that was overlaid with a chessboard. The Turk was designed to play chess against any opponent brave enough to challenge him.

This marvel attracted crowds, royalty, nobles and even kings and queens. It baffled everyone. The cabinet portion was about four feet wide, two feet deep and three feet high. It had two front doors and two rear doors. Before each performance the doors were opened one at a time to show the audience that no one could hide inside. What they saw was complex machinery, glistening brass wheels, levers and gears.

The Turk’s left hand held a long clay pipe which was removed when the game started because the left hand also moved the chess pieces. The arm and hand would rise, advance above the board to the piece to be moved, descend, grasp the piece, and convey it to its new square.

The Turk would use the white pieces and always had the first move. Between moves the Turk kept its left arm on the cushion. The Turk would nod twice if it threatened its opponent’s queen, and three times upon placing the king in check. If an opponent made an illegal move, the Turk would shake its head, move the piece back and make its own move, thus forcing a forfeit of its opponent’s move.

When turned on, the cabinet emitted buzzes and clicks, and an installed talking machine called out “Check” when appropriate. The Turk also moved its head side to side and rolled its eyes.

5. Why was he made?


The Turk was, in fact, not an automaton at all, but merely a magician’s prop. It was clever but also not what you would expect from a famous scientist and engineer like Kempelen. It was probably due to the fact that he worked for the government. When it became known that his employer, the Archduchess Maria Theresa, had an unbeatable chess playing automaton, visitors to the royal court always requested a demonstration.

Kempelen had dismantled the Turk when he was ordered to bring it back for a party of Russian dignitaries. Kempelen was also distraught when he was told to take it on a two-year tour of Europe, including France, England, and Germany, all under the closest scientific scrutiny. Kempelen suddenly became the engineer responsible for Austria’s great hydraulic waterworks who was forced to perform an illusion for his fellow scientists around the world.

Kempelen had accompanied Maria Theresa to a performance by a French conjurer named Pelletier. She hoped Kempelen would be able to explain to her how the tricks were accomplished. Kempelen offered her a challenge: that his scientific ingenuity could produce an automaton capable of giving a performance more impressive and mystifying than any she had ever seen. Neither of them realizing the impact it would have on the rest of Kempelen’s life, Maria Theresa accepted, excusing him from his official duties for six months in order that he could deliver on his promise. The result was the Turk.

4. The Turk goes on tour 


In 1781, Kempelen was ordered by the Emperor Joseph II to reconstruct the Turk and deliver it to Vienna for a state visit from Grand Duke Paul of Russia and his wife. The demonstration was so successful that Grand Duke Paul suggested a tour of Europe for the Turk, a request to which Kempelen reluctantly agreed.

The tour of the Turk began its European tour in 1783, beginning with an appearance in France. A stop at Versailles preceded an exhibition in Paris, where the Turk lost a match to Charles Godefroy de La Tour d’Auvergne, the Duc de Bouillon. Upon arrival in Paris, it was displayed to the public and played a number of opponents.  After sessions at Versailles, demand increased for a match with François-André Danican Philidor, who was considered the best chess player of the day.  Moving to the Café de la Régence, the machine played many of the most skilled players, often losing until securing a match with Philidor at the Académie des Sciences. While Philidor won his match with the Turk, Philidor’s son noted that his father called it “his most fatiguing game of chess ever!” The Turk’s final game in Paris was against Benjamin Franklin, who was serving as ambassador to France from the United States. Franklin reportedly enjoyed the game with the Turk and was interested in the machine for the rest of his life.

Following his tour of Paris, Kempelen moved the Turk to London, where it was exhibited daily for five shillings. One skeptic in London said it must be an elaborate hoax with a small child inside the machine. Kempelen then traveled to the Sanssouci palace in Potsdam to see Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. Frederick enjoyed the Turk so much that he paid a large sum of money to Kempelen in exchange for the Turk’s secrets. Frederick never gave the secret away, but was reportedly disappointed to learn how the machine actually worked.

3. Napoleon challenges the Turk


Napoleon was an avid chess player throughout his life. He played chess while in Egypt, Russia, while in exile in Elba and finally on his lonely island in the Atlantic, St. Helena. He even said that he sometimes mapped out his campaigns based on certain positions of the pieces on a chessboard. As a player he reportedly had bad manners. He sometimes required all of his friends to stand for five consecutive hours watching him play chess. He also became impatient if his opponent took a long time to make his move.

In 1809, Napoleon arrived in Vienna and challenged the Turk to a game of chess. In a surprise move, Napoleon took the first turn instead of allowing the Turk to make the first move, as was usual. Shortly thereafter, Napoleon attempted an illegal move. Upon noticing the move, the Turk returned the piece to its original spot and continued the game. Napoleon attempted the illegal move a second time, and the Turk responded by removing the piece from the board entirely and taking its turn. Napoleon then attempted the move a third time, the Turk responding with a sweep of its arm, knocking all the pieces off the board. Napoleon laughed and they started to play a real game.  In the first game the Turk defeated him in 19 moves.

Napoleon placed a magnet on the chessboard before the second game because he suspected the Turk relied on magnets for its operation, but the Turk still won. Before the third game, Napoleon wrapped a shawl around the Turk’s head and torso, thinking there might be an operator hidden inside. However, the Turk won a third time.

At the conclusion of the games, the cabinet doors were opened to show that no one had crawled inside to operate the Turk. Audience reaction ranged from skepticism to amazement to sheer fright at such an unholy machine.

2. The Turk lives on


When von Kempelen died in 1804, his son sold the machine to Maelzel, a Bavarian musician and machinist, for 10,000 francs (the equivalent of US $195,000 today).

The Turk made its North American debut in 1826. For the next decade it toured cities along the East Coast of the United States before heading to Canada and, finally, Cuba. Maelzel died at sea in 1838 at the age of 66, leaving his machine to the ship’s captain.

Two years later, Dr. John Kearsley Mitchell bought the Turk and donated it to the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia. In 1854,  the museum and the Turk were destroyed by fire. It was not until 1857 when Mitchell’s son, Silas, revealed the Turk’s secret to the world in a series of Chess Monthly magazine articles.

The Turk was a hoax that bewildered and amazed several other historical figures, including poet Edgar Allen Poe. And it raised disturbing questions about the future of technology. After all, if a machine could outsmart humans, what would that mean for society?

1.The Turk’s Secret Revealed


The Turk was indeed controlled by a human operator hidden inside, but due to Kempelen’s design, there was no need for the operator to be small; any average adult would fit. This allowed him to hire the best chess players available. The hidden chess player moved around during the display of the cabinet’s interior, though on a sliding seat gliding soundlessly on greased rails. The operator did play on a small secondary chessboard inside, and did watch the game via magnetic indicators on the underside of the board above. He used a small candle for light.

To move the Turk’s arm, Kempelen basically made a pantograph. When the Turk moved, the operator would move a small arm over the chessman on his secondary board, twist its end to open and close the Turk’s fingers, to lift and move the piece; all of the operator’s movements smoothly reproduced via the armature extending through the Turk’s hand. The operator also had controls to shake the Turk’s head, roll its eyes, strike its fist upon the table, or make some noisy clockwork run to cover any noises like coughs. There was also a means of communication between the exhibitor and the operator. A small knob with a pointer that could be set by either person to the numbers 0 through 9, the meaning of which could be whatever they planned. This could be used by the operator to inform the exhibitor that his candle had gone out or anything else.

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Rick Mac
Student and author of History. The study of History is the beginning of wisdom.

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