Once upon a time when there were no computers, a unique chess-playing machine popped up, seemingly out of nowhere. The machine came equipped with a mechanical mannequin and played several chess masters of the 18th century including renowned personalities like Charles Babbage and Benjamin Franklin. This automated chess-playing machine was called the Mechanical Turk and it was created by Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen. But here’s the thing: it was a hoax.
Kempelen revealed the machine for the first time before the Empress of Austria Maria Theresa in 1770 and soon it became popular all across Europe. For more than 60 years, the secret that enabled the chess machine’s lifeless mannequin to win against humans was known only known to its inventor and a few other people who were a part of its operations. Obviously, technologies like artificial intelligence or machine learning didn’t exist at that time (and presumably neither did magic) so then how was an automated chess player built in the 18th century able to beat humans?
The origin of the Mechanical Turk
To understand how the Mechanical Turk came to be, we have to rewind a bit.
In 1769, a magician was performing an act in the court of Empress Maria Theresa. The details of the performance are not known but historical records suggest that a Hungarian writer called Wolfgang von Kempelen also attended the event and was inspired by the illusion — inspired to create an illusion of his own. After the magician was done with his performance, Kempelen promised the Empress that he would come up with an invention that would outperform the magician’s illusionary act.
So he invented the Mechanical Turk.
The next year, Kempelen demonstrated his automaton chess player (now called the Mechanical Turk) before the Empress. From the outside, the machine looked like a wooden sculpture that consisted of a life-size mannequin attached to a wooden cabinet having dimensions 3.5 x 2 x 2.5 feet. The mannequin was dressed as an oriental magician (a Turk), he wore a robe, a turban, and had a mustache.
His right arm was extended towards the cabinet, his left arm was holding a vintage smoking pipe, and his eyes were focused on the top of the cabinet where the chessboard would be placed during a game. From the front side, the cabinet consisted of three doors and a bottom drawer. Before demonstrating how the machine worked, Kempelen displayed the inner mechanism of the machine before the court members by opening the different sections of the cabinet.
The door on the left housed a complex clockwork-like mechanical arrangement that incorporated levers, wheels, cogs, etc. The other two doors covered a chamber consisting of a cushion, some removable parts, and a letter board, and the drawer at the bottom stored a chessboard and chess pieces. Kempelen had also opened the thighs of the mannequin and revealed that it also had a clockwork-like mechanism on the inside. He was trying to show the court that the mannequin was a complex mechanical automaton.
Kempelen’s plan worked.
After describing the external and internal construction of the chess machine, Kempelen invited members from Empress Theresa’s court to play chess with the mannequin. Several court members played against the mechanical man and all of them were defeated with ease.
The Turk’s popularity spread like wildfire. News spread far and wide of the first machine capable of overpowering human intelligence. After its first surprising performance before the Empress of Austria, Kempelen was invited by various royal family members, officers, and ministers to demonstrate the machine.
Maria Theresa’s son Joseph II sent Kemeplen along with his chess-playing machine on a tour to Europe during which the Mechanical Turk faced various opponents while performing in courts of several European countries. During its tour, the machine won against prominent personalities like Benjamin Franklin but it also faced a defeat against François-André Danican Philidor, Europe’s best chess player at that time.
The Turk became a mysterious invention because the mannequin could not only play chess but also point out if its opponent tried to cheat during a game. Meanwhile, nobody was able to accurately figure out how the machine’s life-sized model was able to think of chess moves better than a human. Even members of the prestigious scientific society Académie des Sciences were not able to find the secret behind the automated chess-playing ability of the Turk.
After Kempelen’s death in 1804, the machine was owned by Johann Maelzel, a German engineer turned showman who toured with the chess-playing machine to Europe and then to the US. Under Maelzel’s ownership, the machine played against Napoleon Bonaparte who tried to fool the machine by knowingly making wrong moves but the mannequin recognized Napoleon’s incorrect moves and ended the game as a sign of its objection. Later, the machine was challenged by Charles Babbage (the man who invented the first computer) who played two games with the Turk and got defeated both times. These popular matches of the Turk were also covered by various leading newspapers and magazines at that time.
So the machine was not *the* best chess player on the planet, but it was still very good. So how could an 18th-century machine be this good at chess? Well, it’s simple: it wasn’t.
The secret behind the Mechanical Turk
The late 18th and the early 19th centuries during which the Turk rose to popularity were also the times that witnessed the birth of various inventions (such as the parachute, the first vaccine, battery, submarine, etc) that were previously deemed to be impossible. It was a time of invention exuberance, which encouraged people to believe that innovations like Mechanical Turk were also possible. This is also why many people started to believe that Kempelen’s automaton chess player was indeed an intelligent machine.
But the Mechanical Turk was nothing but an illusion, a hoax that fooled and entertained people for more than 60 years. During the chess matches, it was not the mannequin who played the game but there was always a secret player sitting inside the cabinet who used to decide the moves.
No doubt, many suspected this was the case — but they couldn’t prove it. Charles Babbage also believed that the mannequin was controlled by a human but the machine was designed so intelligently that he couldn’t find evidence. It was another celebrity of the time that showed what was going on.
The secret that governed the Turk came out when American Writer Edgar Allan Poe scrutinized Maelzel’s chess player and concluded that the mannequin is not an automaton but a puppet who is controlled by a person that sits inside the cabinet during a game. His detailed analysis on the Turk published in 1836 convinced people that it was impossible for the machine to function on its own.
Poe’s key findings that unraveled the chess machine mystery were:
- An automaton works in a timely fashion so Maelzol’s chess machine should also make its moves in a particular duration but it doesn’t. The action of this machine lacks regularity which is an important characteristic of an automaton, therefore it’s not a pure machine.
- Since the body movements of the presenter (in this case, Maelzol) are in sync with the mannequin’s and his back is also mostly towards the opponent, there is no way the presenter controls the mannequin.
- When the machine is observed in motion, the movement of components taking place inside it is greater in extent than what is required for the simple movements of the mannequin. Moreover, the movements of the machine demand only a few clockwork components so then why is the cabinet is overcrowded with mechanical parts? It is possible that the inventor is using this setup as a deception.
- A pure machine capable of playing and capable of winning a game should also be able to win all games but Maelzel’s machine has also lost some, therefore it can not be considered a pure machine.
Some of Poe’s conclusions may be somewhat debatable, but his main point was right. Without revealing any particular details about the machine’s design and how exactly a person from the inside could control the mannequin, his points on the human-ness of the Mechanical Turk were enough to convince people. Soon enough, many people started losing interest in the Mechanical Turk.
A closer look at the internal construction of the Turk further confirmed Poe’s findings. Actually, the bottom drawer and the left side section of the cabinet (that housed a clockwork-like setup) were constructed in such a way that they only occupied one-third of the space that they appear to be taking up. Contrary to a typical cabinet drawer, both the sections were not extended all the way to the backside of the cabinet, so there was a hidden empty space inside the cabinet.
This secret space was equipped with a sliding chair that could move from one part of the cabinet to the other allowing the secret player to remain hidden as the demonstrator opened different doors of the machine during the show. There were two more secret doors below the robe of the mannequin where the secret player could hide, those doors and the empty space were never visible to the audience because as the sliding chair moved, the different mechanical components used to take its position.
The chessboard placed in front of the mannequin during a game also shared a magnetic connection with hidden magnets inside the cabinet, as the opponent moved any pieces on the board the magnets on the inside also moved. Since the bottom of the cabinet where the chessboard used to be placed was numbered from one to 64, the hidden player was always aware of the exact position of the chess pieces.
The human player had to contort their body in a difficult and unpleasant way, but ultimately, it could be done — someone who was small, nimble, and good at chess could operate the Mechanical Turk.
The end of the original Turk
Many claimed to have “solved” how the Turk works, but the vast majority of articles (and even books) written during the Turk’s life about how it worked were inaccurate.
Poe’s analysis led to a serious decline in Turk’s popularity and after some time Melzol stopped getting invitations for the machine’s demonstration. Later, it was given to a museum based in Philadelphia but unfortunately, the Mechanical Turk got burnt in a fire incident that took place in the museum on July 5, 1854. However, some of its components were recovered and a new Turk was built, and this time it really worked like an automated chess player because it was operated by a computer.
The Turk’s popularity spawned a number of replicas and inventions, and while the original device may be gone, our fascination with building and watching smart machines is more alive than ever. The Turk may have been a fraud, but the inspiration it gave mankind was as real as can be.