6.28.2007

The Chess-Playing Turk (Machine or Midget?)


The Chess-playing Turk



I play lots of chess. I am a fan of chess. Here is a delightful "story" about. . .an ingenious robot or elaborate joke?

Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen was a mechanical genius who intrigued 18th-century Europe with his automation, which - dressed as a turk -could not only play chess but win every match it played. It was never revealed at the time that the Turk was a fake - and the baron a trickster with a dazzling sense of the outrageous to match his considerable mechanical ability.

The Turk was built in Vienna in 1769 and sat behind a chest, four feet long, two feet wide, and three feet high. In front of him was a chessboard on which he challenged all comers, shifting the pieces with unerring movements of his left hand.

Touring Europe's courts

Before each game the baron would open all the chest's compartments revealing levers, gears, drums, and cylinders.

Emporer Joseph II of Austria sent the Turk on a tour of Europe's courts where it duly beat its royal opponents, including Empress Catherine of Russia and Napoleon - whose chess does not seem to have equaled his military strategy.

A widely held belief was that the chess was played by a series of talented midgets!

The truth was that a man squeezed into the chest and manipulated the Turk. He kept in touch with the game through a series of magnets attached to the base of the pieces. Below the board small iron balls were suspended by threads. The balls stuck to the roof of the chest because of the magnets above them. When the chessmen were moved, the hidden accomplice could follow the game by watching the balls also moving.

The facts about what the baron always regarded as "mere trifle" to amuse the Austrian court were not known until after
von Kempelen died in 1804, and the automaton was taken to the United States. It was eventually bought by the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia, where it was destroyed by fire in 1854.

1 comment:

Jiffy Cat said...

I love this story! I read it last week and didn't comment due to distraction. I wish it hadn't been destroyed...the machine that is..