The Turk Chess Automaton Hoax

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Turk Chess Automaton Hoax

"Tis a deception! granted, but such a one as does honour to human nature;
a deception more beautiful, more surprising, more astonishing, than any
to be met with in the different accounts of mathematical recreations."
[Karl Gottlieb von Windisch 1784]

Racknitz - The Turk 3

Racknitz - The Turk 7

Racknitz - The Turk 6

Racknitz - The Turk 5

Racknitz - The Turk 4

Racknitz - The Turk 2

Racknitz - The Turk 1

Chess graphic - Glaeser + Strouhal

chess-playing automaton (photograph)

To impress the Austrian Court of Empress Maria, the Hungarian polymath, Wolfgang von Kempelen, designed an ingenious chess playing mechanical device in 1770. The machine consisted of a cabinet with a chess board on top, doors that concealed brass cogs and gears, with a carved torso dressed up like a Turkish man attached to the back of the construction as it faced the audience. One of the turban wearing dummy's arms was moveable and the hand was of course able to pick up and move the chess pieces. It came to be known as 'the Turk' and exhibition chess matches against a host of challengers made it one of the most popular and enduring automaton shows of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The internal design included false clockwork pieces that moved in concert with the hidden operator's (a chess master) seat movement and helped him stay concealed - he moved around to avoid detection when the host (Kempelen in the beginning) opened doors and invited the audience to peer through to the other side - creating the illusion of a humanless automaton. Magnetic chess pieces allowed the board layout to be seen by a simple reciprocal system inside; ventilation pipes provided air for the operator and other pipes diverted candle smoke out through the Turk (who also smoked a pipe). A pegboard laid out the chessboard inside the cabinet and pantographic controls (a dual, fixed movement system, often used for drawing - see computer schematic above) worked the arm and hand on the main chessboard, moving chess pieces around as pegs were moved inside by the chess master/operator. There is more to it obviously but this was the basic set-up.

After its debut before royalty, the device took a back seat in Kempelen's life and it wasn't until the 1780s that he was persuaded to take the Turk on a tour of Europe. A succession of opponents (including chess champions and the likes of Benjamin Franklin) vied for the opportunity to play the increasingly popular magical machine. As might be expected, skeptics emerged and there were at least a couple of books (the illustrations above are from one of these) that claimed to explain the illusion.

Kempelen retired the device before the end of the decade, and in 1808, the Turk was brought back into service under a new (and fairly mercenary) master, Johann Mälzel. He would attract the Turk's most famous opponent, Napoleon Bonaparte, who, from varied accounts, was said to have been defeated once because of illegal moves and again when he laid down his King. Many more exhibitions followed, as did profits, bankruptcy, tours of America and Cuba and eventually, while in semi-retirement, the Turk was destroyed in a fire in Philadelphia 1854.

Since that first European tour in the latter stages of the 18th century, a veritable industry of academic enquiry has blossomed (and continues) attempting to analyse and explain the specific mechanisms and peculiar characteristics associated with the Turk. Perhaps the most famous publication is the 1789 book by Joseph Racknitz, 'Über den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen und dessen Nachbildung' (something like: Overview and illustration of Mr Kempelen's chess playing machine). The coloured engravings above are all from this book in which Racknitz claimed to have deduced the tricks - including of course the stowaway human brain inside - behind the Turk's elaborate design, and he assembled the first reconstructed models of Kempelen's machine. As best I can tell, the majority of illustrations of the device on the web are black and white copies of some of these figures - these coloured versions* from the original book have only appeared on the web in recent times. *[now online at Wikimedia]


All this Turk palaver above was in fact just an elaborate hoax on my part to introduce the very extensive and equally impressive natural history collection pilot project from the Humboldt University in Germany. Die Wissenschaftlichen Sammlungen is one of those collections where it is absolutely worth spending a bit of time.

There are more than 14,000 objects available (for instance, I recall there were 90+ pages of thumbnails just for graphic arts on paper: everything from original watercolour drawings for Linneaus' publications to zoology to ... automatons, which is where I found the Turk series and where I stopped browsing). It's a seriously good repository, despite there being no english - just click around. One term that you will see at the top right of each results page is 'Als Bildvorschau' - this gives you thumbnail views. There are also drop down extended information segments at the bottom of the pages with useful metadata links. [via Archivalia from months ago]

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