PARANORMAL CHESS MACHINE
(Investigator 104, 2005
chess players, including Napoleon, lost to the seemingly
unbeatable "Automaton Chess Player" known as The Turk.
marvel of the 18th and 19th centuries attracted crowds, royalty,
nobles and even kings and queens. It baffled everyone and everyone
wondered how it worked.
was a life-sized wooden dummy in Turkish costume and turban
seated behind a wheeled wooden cabinet, which had a chess board built
into its top surface.
cabinet 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 satisfy the audience
no one could hide inside. What they saw was complex machinery, glistening brass wheels,
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.
a chess-piece slipped from The Turk's hand whereupon the
hand still went to the new position and the exhibitor then placed the
piece on that square.
switched on the cabinet emitted whirrs, 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.
and academics wrote books and articles speculating how The Turk
functioned. No one, however, fully guessed the secret and even when
revealed it wasn't believed.
time, however, the obvious, mundane explanation was the true
one. Perhaps there's a lesson here for today when so many seek exotic,
rather than obvious, explanations for supposed paranormal phenomena
like crop circles and fire-walking.
Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804), an Austrian inventor, built
the Automaton in 1768/69.
completion he demonstrated it to the royals and nobles of Vienna
including the Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780).
Kempelen then toured Europe with his Automaton including Germany,
France and England. Amazed audiences watched the seemingly invincible
machine beat all opponents.
encounters with the famous such as King George III of
England, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Empress Catherine II of
Russia, and Prince Metternich of Austria are probably false. A reported
game against Benjamin Franklin, however, appears true as Franklin was a
keen chess player and was in Paris in 1783 when The Turk performed
about The Turk already appeared in the 18th century. For example
Carl F Hindenburg, a Leipzig University mathematician, wrote Ueber
den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen (1783) after attending
exhibitions in Leipzig.
considered that The Turk functioned through a combination of
mechanics and magnetism. But the main explanation was more mundane.
performances a concealed "operator" or "director", the best
chess player available for the job, sat inside the cabinet, his upper
body left, legs extending right.
"machinery" occupied the front one-third of the cabinet leaving
space for the operator behind it. For audience inspection the drawer,
which also contained the chess pieces, was opened first enabling the
operator to lower his legs behind the drawer. With the legs concealed,
the right door was opened for inspection and closed. The operator then
bent his knees up and moved his body right. The left front and rear
doors were then opened and a lit candle was displayed at the rear and
was visible through the machinery. The doors and drawer were then
closed and the chess pieces set up.
and 1819 the operator was William Lewis (1787-1870) who was
considered England's strongest player. Lewis beat Alexander
Deschapelles (1780-1847) considered the best in France who had himself
beaten the best players in Berlin.
Lewis the next operator was Frenchman Jacques F Mouret
(c.1777-1837), a strong player but not one of the greats. All told at
least 15 men and one woman worked as operators.
of each chess piece on The Turk's chessboard consisted of a
strong magnet. The board itself was thin and each of the 64 squares
had, on its underside, a small iron ball suspended by a short thread.
Each chess piece standing on the board therefore attracted the iron
ball beneath it, but when the piece was lifted the ball dropped. In
this way the concealed chess expert monitored the moves and duplicated
them on a second chess set he had inside the cabinet with him.
levers the concealed player operated The Turk's arm and hand
to grasp chess pieces and move them.
talking machine that cried "check" was a small box fed with
bellows, controlled with buttons which when pressed vibrated a reed
resulting in recognizable words.
concealed chess expert was cramped, hot, had to operate various
levers, and worked by candlelight. But he had two advantages over his
He almost always had White and so made the first
He could explore, although only briefly,
alternative variations on his second chess set, in effect cheat.
Maelzel (1772-1838), a music teacher in Vienna, purchased The
Turk after von Kempelen died.
took the Automaton on further exhibitions including a match
against the conqueror of Europe, Napoleon of France.
played against The Turk in 1809 at his headquarters in
Schoenbrunn (Austria) after the Battle of Wagram. He lost the first
game, arranged for another, and returned with a junior officer reputed
to be a chess prodigy with whom he consulted.
game had spectacular tactics, a prolonged "king hunt", and
ended with Napoleon checkmated despite being three pieces ahead. French
officers, delighted and amazed, showered The Turk with silver coins!
operator from 1805-1809, and therefore Napoleon's opponent, was
Johann Allgaier (1763-1823) a leading German chess player, author of
the first chess-primer in German, and discoverer of the chess opening
named the "Allgaier Gambit".
White: The Turk
e x f Nd4
N x e d x N
Q x B N x c+
K d1 N x R
Napoleon could have lasted longer by giving up his Queen via 28 ---
29 QxQ but would still be checkmated quickly:
e.g. 29 --- Ba3; 30
Rc1+ Ka2; 31 QxN+ Kb3; 32 Rc3+ Kb4; 33 QxB+ Ka5; 34
Qc5+ Ka6; 35 Qb5 Mate.
Or 29 --- Rh6; 30 Rc2+ Kb3; 31 Qc3+ Kxa; 32 Rb2 Rb6; 33 Qb4+ Ka5; 34
Ba3; 35 RxB Mate
25 Qc4+ by The Turk would probably have lost to 25 --- Ka4; 26 Rb7 Rh6;
27 f6 Ka3; 28 Bc7 Qd7; 29 Bf4 Qa4+; etc.
stepson and Viceroy of Italy, Eugene de Beauharnais, wanted
to find out how The Automaton worked and purchased it for 30,000 francs
from Maelzel. His curiosity satisfied Beauharnais then sold it back to
Maelzel on terms.
keep up the payments, and with debt collectors tailing him,
Maelzel took The Automaton to Paris.
met Wilhelm Schlumberger (1800-1838), Germany's best player,
who made his living playing for bets in cafes.
men hatched a plan to make a fortune in America.
together with The Automaton and a small French woman named Le
Francaise, set sail in December 1825.
13, 1826 Maelzel wheeled the Automaton into the
spectator-packed ballroom of New York's National Hotel for its American
the cabinet doors consecutively while the French woman,
concealed inside, maneuvered to stay out of sight. Candlelight
illuminated the clockwork machinery expelling any audience suspicion.
volunteer opponent played at a table some metres from The Turk and
Maelzel duplicated his moves on The Turk's chessboard. The Turk made
his own moves, which Maelzel duplicated on the opponent's board.
won and became the talk of New York. Hundreds were turned away
night after night for lack of seating.
cash rolling in Maelzel sent for Schlumberger.
took months. Meanwhile New York's top chess-player a man
calling himself Greco (after a 17th-century Italian chess expert),
turned up and demanded to play. Neither the French woman, nor another
operator Maelzel had hired, stood a chance.
therefore stalled Greco off with excuses and in July packed and
went to Boston.
Schlumberger arrived, a chess player no American could match. In
Boston The Turk took on all comers and lost only three games. Then, it
was back to New York.
beat two challengers sent by Greco. Maelzel then requested
stakes of at least $1,000 whereupon Greco withdrew his challenge
writing, "I subscribe to the Automaton's superiority without a trial."
In 1827 The Turk
packed houses in Baltimore.
two teenage boys watched from a roof across the street. After
the performance they saw Schlumberger climb out of the cabinet.
Gazette published the story under the heading "The
Chess Player Discovered". Maelzel denied it and the paper retreated
noting that the boys' story had no corroboration. Another paper, the National
Intelligencer of Washington, criticized the Federal Gazette
and claimed the story was a ruse by Maelzel to gain publicity.
the matter rested. The Turk's secret had been exposed to the
world and the world refused to believe.
the negative publicity needed to blow over. A further
problem was that several Americans had built their own chess automatons
and were touring with them. Maelzel therefore ceased public exhibitions
for a while and did only private showings in Baltimore and
Philadelphia. He also put one rival automaton out of action by
purchasing it for $5,000 and burning it.
1830-1835 Maelzel resumed tours and exhibitions including a stint
1836 he went to Richmond in the Southern States.
famous writer Edgar Allan Poe wrote an expose in the Southern
Messenger. Poe argued that a concealed human operated The Turk's
and watched the game through a small hole in the Turk's chest. Poe
noted that Schlumberger was never around whenever The Turk played.
Turk's secret increasingly compromised Maelzel needed new
territory. They went West, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Louisville, and
then down the Mississippi to New Orleans.
and Schlumberger now figured richer pickings lay in South
America. In early 1838 they began with Havana, Cuba. The Havana
exhibition was successful but Schlumberger died there in April of
the American press had quoted Poe's article extensively.
Also devastating was an article published in Europe in 1834 (and
subsequently in America) wherein Mouret described his career as The
Turk's operator 14 years earlier.
then forced Maelzel to leave Cuba for the US, but he died
aboard ship in July.
OF THE TURK
Maelzel's death the Automaton had several more owners, finally
the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia.
July 1854, it perished in a fire.
inspired the movie The Chess Player (1927) with
as von Kempelen, and has also appeared on stamps of several countries.
further chess-playing automatons became famous after The Turk.
Mephisto constructed in 1876 by Charles G Gumpel a manufacturer
of artificial limbs.
Ajeeb, was constructed in 1868 by Englishman Arthur
Hopper. Ajeeb was a life-sized figure of an Egyptian and, like The
Turk, sat behind a cabinet. The contraption was exhibited across
Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States. In Berlin alone
100,000 people came to see it.
less ingenious than The Turk, the operator, for example,
watched the game directly through a hole in the Egyptian's navel.
Ajeeb's operators was Harry Pillsbury (1872-1906) the American
champion and equal to the best in the world. He operated Ajeeb from
1950s we've had chess-playing computers. In 1997 a chess
program named Deep Blue defeated Gary Kasparov the most highly rated
human player of all time.
secret was never publicly exposed with a full explanation of
how it worked. Some critics speculated that a child, dwarf or legless
man was concealed inside the cabinet, which in principle was correct
but not the whole story.
people simply wanted to believe in a genuine chess-playing
machine. They wanted to believe that gears and clockwork-like machinery
could out-think humans.
was the fact that The Turk rarely lost. Against was the fact
that no scientist or mathematician could show, even in principle, how
machinery could play chess. Belief in The Turk required the implausible
assumption that one man, the inventor, was intellectually centuries
ahead of his time, yet was content to waste his life and talents
supervising chess games!
today, numerous alleged paranormal phenomena require, if
they are to be believed, remarkable and unscientific assumptions. As
with Kempelen's Automaton the ordinary, common sense explanation in
most cases refutes the alleged paranormal claim.
Brace, E R 1977 An Illustrated Dictionary of Chess,
Carroll, C M 1975 The Great Chess Automaton, Dover,
Levitt, G M 2000 The Turk, Chess Automaton, McFarland
Parade, The Great Chess Hoax, 1962
May, pp 38-39
Standage, T 2002 The Turk, Walker
|To avoid promoting false history
the following admission is made:
The editorial of Investigator #104 said in part:
includes a test of your alertness and insight. Under one subheading is
some false information which does not belong there because it was
deliberately fabricated. See whether you can spot it."
The "false information" refers to the second chess game between The
Turk and Napoleon.
If you play chess enjoy the game but don't spread the rumor that
Napoleon played it.