The Mechanical Turk Chess Master

The Mechanical Turk Chess Master
An automaton chess player, called “The Turk” by Wolfgang von Kempelen. Wood engraving, 1893.

The Mechanical Turk Chess Player Machine, commonly known as ‘The Turk’, was purportedly an automaton capable of playing top-level chess, defeating most of the leading intellectuals and figures of his time.

It was created and unveiled by Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770, and allegedly, it was capable of playing chess on its own. Kempelen got the idea of the Automaton Chess Player after witnessing a magic act performed by French illusionist François Pelletier at the court of Maria Theresa of Austria, at Schönbrunn Palace.

Afterwards, following a conversation between Kempeler and Pelletier, Kempeler vowed that he would return to court with an illusion act that would top all the illusions.

‘The Turk’

The device was a life-size model of a human head and torso. The head had grey eyes, a black beard, and a head turban. The mannequin was dressed as ‘an oriental sorcerer’ in traditional robes from the Ottoman Empire. The left hand of the dummy held a long smoking pipe, while the right hand lay on top of a large table, and placed atop the table there was a chess set.

The table stood 110 cm long, 61cm wide, and 76 cm high. It had three doors on the front and a drawer, which could be open to reveal the inside of the Chess Player Machine. There were also two other doors at the back of the cabinet, under the Turkish mannequin. The front and back could be simultaneously open so that the public could see through the machinery. The view was a complicated set of gears similar to those of a clockwork and a series of levers connected to a pantograph and a perforated hardboard via the left arm of the dummy.

Illustration of the workings of the Mechanical Turk Chess Master
Illustration of the workings of the Mechanical Turk Chess Master

The unique chess-playing machine became a mystery invention, as not only could the mannequin play chess, it would point out whether the opponent was trying to cheat during a game. If the Turk threatened the opponent’s queen, he would nod twice. Three times if the king was placed 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.

Even more impressive, was The Turk’s ability to speak English, German and French, using a letter board placed on top of the table. A voice box was later added to the Chess Master after it was purchased by German engineer Johann Nepomuk Mälzel. The Mechanical Turk was able to say “Échec!” (French for “check”) during matches

Rituals & Games

The Turk made its appearance in 1770 at Schonbrunn Palace, around six months after Pelletier’s performance act. Kempelen presented his invention before the court, describing what he had constructed, and began the demonstration, opening the doors and drawers and allowing the public to inspect the machine.

Wolfgang Von Kempelen and his successor, Johann Nepomuk Malzel, had a ritual prior to every chess game: They would open all of the cabinets and raise up an automated machines mantle, exposing the automaton’s internal mechanism to spectators, showing there was no person within.

He would also place a large magnet at the side of the board in an attempt to show that the machine was not influenced by magnetism.

The Turk Chess Master - 'Automaton Chess Player'
The Turk Chess Master – ‘Automaton Chess Player’

The Mechanical Turk went on a tour across Europe and America for nearly 84 years, playing chess against personalities such as Charles Babbage, a well-known inventor who developed the first computer, Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin among other renowned personalities of the epoch.

It was reported at the time that the Chess Turk had a very aggressive style of play, and would normally defeat opponents within 30 minutes. Most of the Turk’s losses came about when the machine was facing some of the best and most skilled players of the time.

The Turk Chess Master would also astonish the public by completing a famed chess puzzle known as the ‘Knight’s Tour’; which requires the player to move the knight around a chessboard, touching each square once along the way.

An open knight's tour of a chessboard
An open Knight’s Tour of a chessboard
The knight's tour, as solved by the Turk. The closed loop that is formed allows the tour to be completed from any starting point on the board.
The knight’s tour, as solved by the Turk. The closed loop that is formed allows the tour to be completed from any starting point on the board.

The Reveal

The secrets governing the one-of-a-kind machine for playing chess were revealed when the American writer Edgar Allan Poe studied Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen in detail, concluding that the mechanical dummy was not an automaton, but rather a puppet controlled by an individual sitting in the case while playing.

The reality, of course, was that a chess master was hidden within a cabinet, keeping score of the games on a miniature chessboard, and controlling the Turk’s movements using levers. Inside the cabinet, there was an elaborate set of cogs, chains, gears, and levers controlling the mechanical arms and hands of the Turk, which, in turn, moved pieces around on a chessboard. The player folded himself into the cabinet, and was able to move the machine’s self-contained arm and head to place chess pieces.

Mechanical Turk Chess Player Machine
Mechanical Turk Chess Player Machine

The automaton was actually a mechanical illusion. It had a sliding seat inside, and when the doors were open, the operator sitting inside would slide from one side to the other, thus avoiding being observed by the public.

Wolfgang von Kempelen's Mechanical Turk Chess Master
Wolfgang von Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk Chess Master

The top of the cabinet’s chessboard was sufficiently thin to support a magnetic coupling. Each chess piece in the set had a tiny, powerful magnet attached to its base, and when the pieces were placed on the board, they attracted a magnet strung beneath the precise locations where they were placed. As a result, the machine’s operator could see which pieces moved to what locations on the chess board.

Engraving Depicting the workings of the Automaton Chess Player
Engraving Depicting the workings of the Automaton Chess Player

The machine had a ventilation system that allowed the operator to breathe. He sat inside with a candle, which allowed him to see the levers and gears that he needed to turn and move in order to move the pieces on the board. The operator inside the Mechanical Turk was also able to communicate with the illusionist outside using a system of brass discs positioned opposite each other inside and outside of the machine. The discs had numbers on them, and as they rotated, they acted as a code between the two of them.

Lastly, the Turk was able to complete the Knight’s Tour puzzle without any difficulty from any starting point via a pegboard used by the operator with a mapping of the puzzle laid out.

Mechanical Turk’s Final Hour

The Turk had toured most of Europe and a vast area of America during his 84 years of service. It had seen the inside of many museums, and after the death of Wolfgang von Kempelen, it was sold several times and passed via many hands.

It finally ended in the Chinese Museum of Charles Willson Peale, where it lay almost entirely forgotten until the 5th of July of 1854 when a fire started in a nearby building entirely consumed the machine.

Many replicas have been built since, with many improvements upon it, giving rise to entirely different machines. The Turk has also inspired countless literally works, and even adaptations to the story have made it to the ‘Big Screen’.

If You Enjoyed This Content, Feel Free To Leave A Tip Or Visit One Of The Sponsor Adverts