The Mechanical Turk Chess Player
Wolfgang von Kempelen was a Hungarian inventor and author who wanted to impress Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, so he built a chess-playing automaton and presented it to the monarch in 1770. It consisted of a human figure dressed in Turkish robes seated behind a cabinet on top of which was placed a chess board. Inside the cabinet was a complicated arrangement of cogs, sprockets, gears, and levers that controlled the Turk’s mechanical arm and hand that, in turn, moved the pieces on the chess board.
In the 18th century, mechanical animals were popular among the aristocracy who were, of course, the only level of society that could afford such exotic entertainment. French artist Jacques de Vaucanson was a prominent designer and builder of such contraptions. His Digesting Duck quacked and moved its beak, but the highlight was that it pooped out food it had eaten.
His menagerie of automata included humanoids that played musical instruments. Von Kempelen’s Turk was very much in this tradition.
A Royal Debut
Von Kempelen gave the first demonstration of his chess machine to the Austrian court in 1770. He began by opening the doors in the cabinet to show the complicated clockwork within and to demonstrate that viewers could see right through the machine.
He then invited challengers to take on the Turk in a game of chess. The first to have a go was Count Ludwig von Cobenzl; he was defeated in short order, and so were the other contestants.
Viewers were amazed to watch the Turk perform the “Knight’s Tour,” a puzzle in which the knight lands on every square of the chess board only once.
And, to top it off, the Turk was able to converse with players in English, French, or German using a letter board.
Von Kempelen seems to have been displeased with the notoriety of his machine and retired the Turk.
The pressure to exhibit the magical chess player was great and von Kempelen was ordered by Emperor Joseph II to demonstrate its powers in Vienna for a visit by Grand Duke Paul of Prussia in 1781.
The grand duke was so impressed that he suggested The Turk be taken on a tour of Europe. Von Kempelen was reluctant, but one did not ignore the suggestions of a grand duke.
At the Palace of Versailles, the Mechanical Turk was beaten by the Duc de Bouillon in 1783, and a popular demand grew for a match with the best chess player of his era François-André Danican Philidor. Again, The Turk was defeated but Philidor is supposed to have said the match was the most fatiguing game he’d ever played.
However, against lesser players the mechanical marvel almost always won, including a game against Benjamin Franklin, the U.S. Ambassador to France at the time.
Von Kempelen and his chess wizard moved on to London, Amsterdam, and many other European cities before returning to Vienna. The Turk then sat silent for a couple of decades until it was bought after von Kempelen’s death by one Johann Maelzel in 1808.
The Turk Goes Commercial
Maelzel was a man with a flair for promotion and his greatest early coup was to set up a game between the Mechanical Turk and Napoleon I of France. In the white corner it’s the Turk; in the black corner Napoleon Bonaparte.
In the first game, Napoleon made what is charitably known as an illegal move; the uncharitable might call it an attempt to cheat. But, the machine simply replaced Napoleon’s piece to its previous position. A second illegal move resulted in the Turk removing Napoleon’s piece from the board. When Napoleon tried to, ahem, make a creative move a third time, the Turk swept all the pieces off the table.
A second game was set up, but the little general’s mastery of the battlefield did not translate into prowess on the chess board, and the Turk won in 19 moves.
More exhibitions followed and Maelzel took his chess master to America. A lucrative tour took the machine all over the U.S. and into Canada and Cuba. Maelzel died in 1838 and the Turk changed hands several times before ending up in a museum in Philadelphia. Fire destroyed the museum in 1854 and the Turk perished in the blaze.
The Turk’s Secret
There was much speculation about the machine’s workings.
From the beginning, people tried unsuccessfully to guess the Turk's secret. The son of its last private owner wrote in Chess World (1868) “Perhaps, no secret was ever kept as the Turk’s has been. Guessed at, in part, many times, no one of the several explanations in our possession has ever practically solved this amusing puzzle.”
As von Kempelen intended, most observers were distracted by the complicated clockwork arrangements; surely this was the secret to the Turk’s chess proficiency. As with all skilled illusionists, von Kempelen directed his audience’s attention away from the real secret.
Edgar Allan Poe witnessed an exhibition of the machine in Richmond, Virginia and wrote an explanation of its working in the Southern Literary Messenger in April 1836. But, he got in wrong. Poe suggested the Turk was operated telepathically.
Some thought there was a trained monkey inside the cabinet, others that a legless Polish soldier was moving the pieces. These theories were the closest to unravelling the mystery. However, there were no simians or war wounded, just a highly skilled chess player hidden within the cabinet. With a moveable seat he was able to conceal himself in various places while the illusionist opened the cabinet doors to prove there was nothing inside except the entirely superfluous cogs, cams, and sprockets.
The chess pieces were magnetized and moved the same pieces on a board underneath. A pegboard and a pantograph allowed the operator to manipulate the Turk’s arm and hands.
In May 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue became the first machine to beat a reigning world chess champion. In a six-game match with Gary Kasparov, the computer won 3½–2½. One result of the contest was the invention of a game called arimaa. It is played with a standard chess set and is simple for humans to learn, but it was deliberately constructed to be difficult for computers to play. Despite this, a computer won a human/machine arimaa challenge in 2015.
British cabinet maker Charles Hopper built Ajeeb in 1865. It was a life-sized automaton inspired by the Turk that had been destroyed by fire. Ajeeb was a chess player whose “movements are so life-like that it is difficult to believe that it is not endowed with life.” Ajeeb lost only three of the chess games it played and never lost at chequers. One aggrieved loser took out his gun and shot Ajeeb. And, in a strange echo of the Chess Turk’s fate, Ajeeb was destroyed in a fire in 1929.
- “The Turk Chess Automaton Hoax.” BibliOdyssey, December 23, 2007.
- “The Automaton Chess Player.” Dr. Silas Mitchell, The Chess World, 1868.
- “Mastering the Game: A History of Computer Chess.” Computerhistory.org, undated.
- “The Strange and Wondrous Ajeeb.” Chess.com, undated.