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An 18th-Century Chess-Playing Robot: The Mechanical Turk

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The iconic 1996 victory of IBM’s supercomputer, Deep Blue, over chess champion and grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, wasn’t the first time man was bested by machine in one of the world’s oldest games. No—that dubious distinction belongs to Wolfgang von Kempelen’s incredible 1769 creation, the Mechanical Turk.

As the American Revolution raged on across the pond, the robotically engineered, mustachioed Mechanical Turk toured Europe, and later the Americas.

Like an Enlightenment-era Prometheus, the automaton chess player was allegedly a sensational, sentient thinking machine crafted by a royal servant with the android-like artifice of a mystic shaman from the Anatolian peninsula. In its time, the Turk defeated challengers as prolific as American Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin; Emperor of France, Napoléon Bonaparte; Emperor of Russia, Paul I; Empress of Russia, Catherine; and King of Prussia, Frederick the Great—talk about a king’s gambit!

Opening: The Pledge

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called ‘The Pledge.’ The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t.” —Christopher Priest, The Prestige

In the 18th century, early animatronics were all the rage. A chic feature typical of circuses, traveling carnivals, and other touring exhibitions, these ingenious gadgets were variably operated by and orchestrated with axles, chains, cogs, gears, levers, pendulums, pulleys, wheels, and wind-up keys.

Automata had been around for centuries, littered throughout ancient Greek mythology and brought to life over the years. Innovations such as Leonardo da Vinci’s robotic knight and Jacques de Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck—which could be fed pellets and was subsequently capable of defecating—were created 30 years prior to the Turk. All were complex clockwork contraptions even by today’s standards.

No invention, however, captured the attention of the world quite like Wolfgang von Kempelen’s enigmatic chessman. While other automatons were limited to a finite amount of repetitive actions, the Mechanical Turk was seemingly the first fully-functional display of artificial intelligence.

Von Kempelen was an all-around techie. Aside from being a 35-year-old career civil servant to Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, he was undoubtedly a renaissance man. He successfully established himself as an author, architect, artist, composer, polyglot, and inventor, whose speaking machine served as an inspiration for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.

In the fall of 1769, von Kempelen was invited by the Empress to provide a scientific perspective on a magician’s performance. Unimpressed, von Kempelen boldly claimed that he could conjure up a superior illusion. Six months later, the debut of his phenomenal chess-playing exhibit took the palace of the Viennese royal court in a blitz of truly magical proportions.

Middlegame: The Turn

“The second act is called ‘The Turn.’ The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.” —Christopher Priest, The Prestige

Von Kempelen presented the Turk as the genuine article. From all appearances, the Turk was a life-sized, human-like robot; albeit, described by Edgar Allan Poe as, “un-lifelike [in] appearances” and as “indifferent imitations” of life.

The figure was wood-plated, dressed in traditional Turkish garb, complete with an ermine-lined Ottoman robe. An ornate turban concealed an auxiliary chimney, and a long-stemmed pipe, bushy Hungarian mustache, and eyebrows sat on its sage face that evoked an exotic sorcerer of the Orient. Overlooked by the Turk’s cold, piercing grey eyes, an 18-inch squared, ivory chessboard lay upon a maple desk.

The audience watched with bated breath as von Kempelen performed his customary routine, as done prior to each exhibition. First, it was revealed that the small desk was, in fact, a large cabinet. Unlocking three doors on both sides revealed the housing of a verifiable omnibus of dark, densely-packed, mysterious machinery. These clock-like, clustered inner-workings were a jumble of beautifully polished moving parts: chains, cogs, gears, pin barrels, wheels, wires, and all other imaginable implements.

The Turk was on wheels which allowed it to be rotated and thoroughly inspected by all in attendance. A drawer at the bottom housed the chessboard, complimentary red and white chessmen, and a red velvet cushion. Lifting the Turk’s robe would reveal that the Turk existed as a simulacrum of the human form only from the waist up. Embedded in the wood were several nooks which could be opened to display even more complex machinery that made up the Turk’s endoskeleton.

From there, von Kempelen would begin turning a noisy side-crank and, with a flurry of the whirling gyrations of winding inner mechanisms, the Turk sputtered and sprang to life. Fully animated, it moved somewhat laboriously in its mechanical fashion but made up for its robotic nature with incredibly quick wit.

Before making its first play, the Turk would move its head back and forth, eyes shifting side-to-side as if scanning the room. Audiences were thrilled. Its pipe was removed from its left hand as its arm was propped up on the red velvet cushion- the resting place between moves. Von Kempelen then illuminated the board using two candelabras. Possessing an ill temperament, the Turk’s right arm extended parallel to the chessboard where its gloved, rigid hand tapped impatiently if the human opponent took too long to finish their turn. If an opponent proved thoroughly outmatched by the Turk, it would cheekily shake its head and mockingly roll its eyes. The game was afoot.

Skeptical Foes and Poes

“Upon beating the game, he waves his head with an air of triumph, looks round complacently upon the spectators, and drawing his left arm farther back than usual, suffers his fingers alone to rest upon the cushion.” —Edgar Allan Poe, Maelzel’s Chess-Player

Word spread like wildfire. The Turk’s aggressive chess-playing prowess only added to its aura, as it was seldom defeated. With the tiny dimensions of the desk and plethora of gadgets and gizmos inside, the question on everyone’s mind was: With no room for a player inside, what could possibly account for this robotic success?

While many accepted the Turk’s superior mastery as a man-made machine that could best men, others longed to solve the mystery. Theories ran rampant varying from the possible-but-unprovable, to the outright insane: a secret, compartment-contained child, a legless war veteran, offstage assistants, and a monkey trained to play chess, all rumored hypotheses. Harnessing the power of electromagnetism was pointed to as a potential explanation; some even decried it as a work of the evil forces of the supernatural.

A litany of newspaper articles, essays, pamphlets, and even entire books were published by sleuths attempting to suss out the secrets of the stagecraft—including one by a young Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was puzzled by the mystery, but sure the Turk was not a “pure machine,” but instead, an act of collusion with “human agency.” As he put it: “It is quite certain that the operations of the Automaton are regulated by mind, and by nothing else.”

Poe ultimately reasoned that a human player must be hiding inside of the cabinet and placing their head in the abdomen of the Turk to survey the board through its clothing that had been made translucent by the candlelight. With a knack for inductive reasoning, it was after this encounter that Poe released his first detective mystery, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Never far from his mind, Poe would later reference the Turk and its two promoters again in Von Kempelen and His Discovery.

The Traveling Turk

On the orders of his patron, Empress Maria Theresa, von Kempelen left Austria and took the Turk on a two year, cross-continental exhibition throughout England and France, where it defeated American ambassador and chess aficionado Benjamin Franklin.

After two decades of on-and-off public life, the Turk was stored away for the decade-and-a-half leading to von Kempelen’s death in 1804. The following year, the machine was given a breath of new life when it was purchased by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel. As a Bavarian musical engineer, early manufacturer of the metronome, collaborator of Beethoven’s, and spirited showman, Maelzel came with far loftier ambitions than his predecessor. With the addition of a literal feather yo its turban, and the ability to say, “échec”—check in French—the Turk was back in action and ready for some new competition.

In 1809, while conducting the Wagram campaign of the Napoleonic Wars in Vienna, the Turk seemingly met its match against Napoléon Bonaparte. Curious how his mechanical opponent would react, Napoléon made a series of calculatedly erroneous moves. First, the Turk responded by shaking its head and moving the piece back to its original position. The second time, the Turk removed the erred piece from the board altogether. The third time, however, in the face of the repeated cheating and persistently feisty spirit, the Turk cleared the chessboard and scattered the chessmen with a swipe of its arm. As the audience looked on, stunned at such a brazen act of insubordination. An amused Napoléon was overjoyed by such a bold response and played a straightforward second game, which he lost.

The Turk was to remain exclusively in Europe until 1826 when it would make its western debut on the grandest stage of them all, New York City. While in America, despite suffering a rare defeat at the hands of Declaration of Independence signee, Charles Carroll, the Turk’s popularity only continued to grow.

Maelzel continued touring with the Turk across the United States, Canada, and Cuba until he suddenly passed away while on tour in 1838. As its stardom faded, the Turk ended up in a Philadelphia museum, where it was sadly destroyed during a fire in 1854.

An incredible story, the idea of a fully-functioning, man-made, artificial intelligence in the 18th century seems too good to be true.

Endgame: The Prestige

“Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige.’”—Christopher Priest, The Prestige 

So, how was this all accomplished—in the 1700s, no less? Simple: the Mechanical Turk housed a man hiding within a secret compartment the entire time. Poe had been correct in his observation that Maelzel had a rotating cast of assistants and travel partners that were never present during a performance. If they fell ill or were otherwise unavailable, exhibitions had always been suspended.

The amazing Mechanical Turk was indeed a wonder, but its explanation by von Kempelen was a fabrication.

The cache of fancy bells and whistles that made up the dummy “central nervous system” within the Turk’s interior was a veiled decoy. As curious spectators were led by the nose through the workings of the inner machinations, mirrors gave the impression of depth and complexity.

During the open-door presentation, with the use of foldable partitions and a reclined sliding seat, a fully grown man could move around as various parts of the inside were exposed and remained completely incognito to observers. All noise of this internal operator was camouflaged by the “mechanical workings” of the machine. Games typically lasted upward of thirty minutes; with the lack of ventilation and cramped confinement of the cranny, conditions must have been wretched beyond belief for the hapless man behind—or in this case, under—the curtain.

The craftsmanship accommodating this cunning concealment was so brilliant that even the top engineers and scientists of the day were never able to definitively prove it. In fact, the secret was not revealed until one of the chess masters, who played from within the device, published a tell-all exposé in the Philadelphia National Gazette Literary Register on February 6th, 1837. The enigma was solved after over 68 years of a public life spent working the world’s stage.

Ever the kingmakers, all of the chess virtuosos chosen to be stationed inside the Turk by von Kempelen and Maelzel over the years were champions and gurus of the game. Those employed for the role operated the machine on the inside via a pantograph device, a sort of advanced puppetry that allowed for the clandestine operator to synchronize their arm movement with the Turk’s. Contemporary guesses at the involvement of electromagnetism were half right: the chessboard above was magnetized, allowing indicators to mirror the movement of the board and for the hidden player to keep track of the game from below by candlelight.

And what motivated these champion chess wizards to forgo personal fame and glory, and instead opt to secretly play the thankless role of the Turk’s puppet master? That, too, is simple. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there wasn’t exactly a ton of money to be earned from playing chess. There was, however, money to be made in a magical, chess-playing robot from the Sublime Porte in the mystical and mysterious realm of Asia Minor.

“Perhaps no exhibition of the kind has ever elicited so general attention as the Chess-Player of Maelzel. Wherever seen it has been an object of intense curiosity, to all persons who think.…accordingly, we find everywhere men of mechanical genius, of great general acuteness, and discriminative understanding, who make no scruple in pronouncing the Automaton a pure machine, unconnected with human agency in its movements, and consequently, beyond all comparison, the most astonishing of the inventions of mankind.”—Edgar Allan Poe, Maelzel’s Chess-Player

These revelations may come as no surprise to readers aware of the technological capabilities that were, or more importantly, were not, present in the 18th century. However, to Industrial Revolution-era audiences on the cusp of hitherto unfathomable technological advancements in the midst of seemingly endless discoveries, anything seemed possible.

The Chess Player, 1927, movie poster

In the Turk’s wake, there were numerous copycats: Ajeeb, the Egyptian, and Mephisto. Chess-playing automatons had developed into a sideshow trope no different than Zoltar and other automated fortune-tellers. A play was produced in New York City in 1845 and a French silent film, The Chess Player, in 1927. More than a neat gimmick, the multigenerational sense of awe left by the Turk composed a legacy of inspiration.

Edgar Allan Poe was not the only visionary enchanted by this piece. A year after his 1784 experience with the Turk, Edmund Cartwright envisioned the possibility of automated weaving, thus leading to the power loom—a critical innovation of the Industrial Revolution. After an 1819 encounter with the Turk, Charles Babbage started putting serious consideration to what limits, if any, fell upon the thinking capabilities of a machine. This lead to his becoming of the patriarch of modern computers. Even today, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk software employment program is named for the chess-playing phenom, inspired by the thought of humans assisting computer systems with simple tasks.

Engineered by a masterful illusionist and wound up and puppeteered by a chess artiste, the Turk elevated a parlor trick to an art form. With a faux-automaton, besting nearly all comers in chess, came a sense of wonder. While its nature was fraudulent, the powerful emotions drawn in its generations of service were all very real. After all, truth is beautiful—but lies are fascinating.

By Kris Levin, Contributor for Ripleys.com

Kris Levin is a traveling storyteller, professional wrestling referee, and everybody’s favorite nephew. He can be seen internationally on IMPACT Wrestling as their most junior official, #KidRef, and on social media at @RefKrisLevin.

Source: An 18th-Century Chess-Playing Robot: The Mechanical Turk

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