Mechanical Chess Player Baffled Crowds for Nearly a Century

Built in 1770, “The Turk” won games against Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte

7 June 2016

Engineer Wolfgang von Kempelen got the idea of building a mechanical man that could play chess after watching a magician perform for Austrian Archduchess Maria Theresa at the Viennese court in 1770. He promised her he would come back later that year with a machine that would capture her imagination more so than simple magic tricks.

Six months later he returned to the Vienna court to demonstrate his Automaton Chess Player. The machine consisted of the wooden head, torso, and arms of a mechanical man sitting at a wide, waist-high wooden cabinet. Atop the cabinet was a standard chessboard.

The bearded automaton, outfitted in a traditional Turkish robe and turban, became known as the Turk. Inside the cabinet, which was 110 centimeters wide, 75 cm high, and 60 cm deep, were a series of cogs and gears that clicked, whirred, and made other noises to simulate that the Turk was “thinking” about its next move. When ready to make a move, the automaton’s right arm jerked forward and its mechanical fingers closed around a chess piece, picked it up, and moved it.

Of course, von Kempelen’s machine did not actually play chess by itself. Its secret was that it had a chess master—albeit one of small stature—hidden inside the cabinet. (No machine actually beat a chess master until 1997, when IBM’s Deep Blue defeat Garry Kasparov in game one of a six-game match.) Amazingly, the Turk’s secret was revealed only after the machine was destroyed in a fire in 1854.

HOW IT WORKED

The hidden chess player sat toward the back of the cabinet in a compartment that remained closed off when the cabinet’s front doors were opened to reveal its machinery. The chess player controlled each movement of the Turk’s arms using a pantograph that synchronized his arm movements with the Turk’s. The chess pieces were magnetic, and magnets moved around on a duplicate board underneath the top of the cabinet, so the person inside was able to keep track of the game.

Before and during chess matches, von Kempelen sought to throw off onlookers from figuring out his trick in a number of ways. He would open the cabinet doors before each match and illuminate the machinery inside with a candle. While the doors were open, the chess master was in the back of the cabinet, hiding behind panels placed there for that purpose. During a match, the front doors were closed. Von Kempelen also placed a small wooden box atop the cabinet and often peered into it during the match to suggest that something inside the box was controlling the Turk’s moves. Unbeknownst to the audience, that box was empty.

Several chess masters operated the Turk over the years—both men and women—as von Kempelen and the Turk’s second owner, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, hired and trained players as they traveled from city to city.

WORLDWIDE SPECTACLE—AND SPECULATION

The archduchess and her attendants were reported to have enjoyed von Kempelen’s demonstration of the automaton, but afterwards the Turk sat neglected for more than a dozen years.

However, von Kempelen kept himself busy. As an engineer of his time, his talents were focused on building steam engines, water turbines, and similar projects, including the famous fountains at Schönbrunn Palace, in Vienna. But after Maria Theresa died in 1783, Joseph II, her son and royal successor, asked von Kempelen to restore the mechanical man and persuaded him to take it on a tour of Europe.

Von Kempelen took the machine to an exhibition in Paris, where it won a game of chess against Benjamin Franklin, who was serving as U.S. ambassador to France. The Turk then spent a year in London, where spectators paid five shillings (about US $6 today) to watch it play and defeat most of its opponents.

British author Philip Thicknesse was skeptical of the machine’s ability to dominate the game of chess on its own. He published a pamphlet in 1784 asserting that the cabinet must be “concealing a child, of 10, 12, or 14 years of age”—who must be a chess prodigy.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

The Turk would live on after von Kempelen died in March 1804 at age 70. His son sold the machine to Maelzel, a Bavarian musician and machinist, for 10,000 francs (the equivalent of US $10,000 at the time, or $195,000 today).

In 1808, when French leader Napoleon Bonaparte arrived at Schönbrunn Palace to play the Turk, the machine exhibited some new traits. For one thing, it saluted Napoleon before the match and allowed him to make the first move. Previously, the machine always made the first move. And when Napoleon attempted an illegal move, the Turk shook its head and returned Napoleon’s piece to its original spot. Napoleon attempted the illegal move twice more, until finally the Turk responded by sweeping its arm across the board, knocking the pieces to the floor. They were reassembled, and 30 moves into the game, Napoleon surrendered to his opponent.

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 he eventually 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 computer pioneer Charles Babbage, who lost to the machine twice. And it raised disturbing questions about the future of technology. After all, if a machine could outsmart humans, what would that mean for society?

This article was written with assistance from the IEEE History Center, which is funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation.

This article is part of our June 2016 special issue on artificial intelligence.

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