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August 2, 2023

The Mechanical Turk: How an 18th Century Fake Chess-Playing Machine That Fooled the World

Imagine a machine that could beat any human chess player. That sounds very ordinary. But what if that happened in the eighteenth century long before computers were around?

A reconstruction of the Turk.

The Mechanical Turk, also known as the Turk, was a fraudulent chess-playing machine constructed in 1770, which appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent. For 84 years, it was exhibited on tours by various owners as an automaton. The machine survived and continued giving occasional exhibitions until 1854, when a fire swept through the museum where it was kept, destroying the machine. Afterwards, articles were published by a son of the machine’s owner revealing its secrets to the public: that it was an elaborate hoax, suspected by some, but never proven in public while it still existed.

Constructed and unveiled in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734–1804) to impress Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, the mechanism appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent, as well as perform the knight’s tour, a puzzle that requires the player to move a knight to occupy every square of a chessboard exactly once.

The Turk was in fact a mechanical illusion that allowed a human chess master hiding inside to operate the machine. With a skilled operator, the Turk won most of the games played during its demonstrations around Europe and the Americas for nearly 84 years, playing and defeating many challengers including statesmen such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. The device was later purchased in 1804 and exhibited by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel. The chessmasters who secretly operated it included Johann Allgaier, Boncourt, Aaron Alexandre, William Lewis, Jacques Mouret, and William Schlumberger, but the operators within the mechanism during Kempelen’s original tour remain unknown.

A cross-section of the Turk from Racknitz, showing how he thought the operator sat inside as he played his opponent. Racknitz was wrong both about the position of the operator and the dimensions of the automaton.

Many drawings tried to depict the workings of the Turk.

An attempt to explain how a chess master could operate the Turk from its interior.

The Automaton Chess-player, known in modern times as the Turk, consisted of a life-sized model of a human head and torso, with a black beard and grey eyes, and dressed in Ottoman robes and a turban. Its left arm held a long Ottoman smoking pipe while at rest, while its right lay on the top of a large cabinet that measured about 3.5 feet (110 cm) long, 2 feet (61 cm) wide, and 2.5 feet (76 cm) high. Placed on the top of the cabinet was a chessboard, which measured 18 inches (460 mm) on each side. The front of the cabinet consisted of three doors, an opening, and a drawer, which could be opened to reveal a red and white ivory chess set.

The interior of the machine was very complicated and designed to mislead those who observed it. When opened on the left, the front doors of the cabinet exposed a number of gears and cogs similar to clockwork. The section was designed so that if the back doors of the cabinet were open at the same time one could see through the machine. The other side of the cabinet did not house machinery; instead it contained a red cushion and some removable parts, as well as brass structures. This area was also designed to provide a clear line of vision through the machine. Underneath the robes of the Ottoman model, two other doors were hidden. These also exposed clockwork machinery and provided a similarly unobstructed view through the machine. The design allowed the presenter of the machine to open every available door to the public, to maintain the illusion.

Neither the clockwork visible to the left side of the machine nor the drawer that housed the chess set extended fully to the rear of the cabinet; they instead went only one third of the way. A sliding seat was also installed, allowing the operator inside to slide from place to place and thus evade observation as the presenter opened various doors. The sliding of the seat caused dummy machinery to slide into its place to further conceal the person inside the cabinet.

The chessboard on the top of the cabinet was thin enough to allow for a magnetic linkage. Each piece in the chess set had a small, strong magnet attached to its base, and when they were placed on the board the pieces would attract a magnet attached to a string under their specific places on the board. This allowed the operator inside the machine to see which pieces moved where on the chess board. The bottom of the chessboard had corresponding numbers, 1–64, allowing the operator to see which places on the board were affected by a player’s move. The internal magnets were positioned in a way that outside magnetic forces did not influence them, and Kempelen would often allow a large magnet to sit at the side of the board in an attempt to show that the machine was not influenced by magnetism.

As a further means of misdirection, the Turk came with a small wooden coffin-like box that the presenter would place on the top of the cabinet. While Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, a later owner of the machine, did not use the box, Kempelen often peered into the box during play, suggesting that the box controlled some aspect of the machine. The box was believed by some to have supernatural power; Karl Gottlieb von Windisch wrote in his 1784 book Inanimate Reason that “[o]ne old lady, in particular, who had not forgotten the tales she had been told in her youth ... went and hid herself in a window seat, as distant as she could from the evil spirit, which she firmly believed possessed the machine.”

The interior also contained a pegboard chess board connected to a pantograph-style series of levers that controlled the model’s left arm. The metal pointer on the pantograph moved over the interior chessboard, and would simultaneously move the arm of the Turk over the chessboard on the cabinet. The range of motion allowed the operator to move the Turk’s arm up and down, and turning the lever would open and close the Turk’s hand, allowing it to grasp the pieces on the board. All of this was made visible to the operator by using a simple candle, which had a ventilation system through the model. Other parts of the machinery allowed for a clockwork-type sound to be played when the Turk made a move, further adding to the machinery illusion, and for the Turk to make various facial expressions. A voice box was added following the Turk’s acquisition by Mälzel, allowing the machine to say “Échec!” (French for “check”) during matches.

An operator inside the machine also had tools to assist in communicating with the presenter outside. Two brass discs equipped with numbers were positioned opposite each other on the inside and outside of the cabinet. A rod could rotate the discs to the desired number, which acted as a code between the two.

The inner workings of the Turk’s arm, as envisioned by Joseph Racknitz.

The OG Mechanical Turk.

Instead, strong chess masters would hide inside the fake automaton and operate it from inside it. Although many people suspected that was the case (including the famous writer Edgar Allan Poe), no one could successfully explain how the mechanism worked.

The Turk continued its exhibitions for more than 80 years until it was retired and donated to the Chinese Museum of Charles Willson Peale. In 1854, a fire destroyed part of the museum along with the mechanical chess player. Only after its destruction did the son of one of its owners reveal its secret in a series of articles he wrote for The Chess Monthly, a monthly magazine in the United States.


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