The Chess-Playing Mechanical Turk

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An overview of the amazing chess playing robot of the 1700s.

Brian Dunningby Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Today we’re headed back in time, all the way back to the Vienna court of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary, in the year 1770. There the scientific polymath Werner von Kempelen, then thirty six years old, brought forth a mechanical automaton: the figure of a man seated at a large wooden chess table, the cabinet below filled with clockwork. A volunteer from the audience stepped forward. Kempelen wound up the machine, and it reached out and made the first move, the clockwork whirring and ticking. The astonished volunteer was quickly defeated. Delighted with the mechanical marvel, Maria Theresa ordered many more performances. In fact, the Turk, as it was nicknamed for its Turkish clothing, toured the world for the next 80 years, defeating the world’s top chess players plus luminaries such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin, without anyone ever discovering its secrets. Although many skeptics published fine articles purporting that the Turk actually contained a child, dwarf, or legless adult chess player, or that it must have been secretly controlled by its exhibitor, the workings of the Turk remained one of history’s best kept secrets.

But all secrets are fleeting, and shortly before the Turk’s destruction in an 1854 fire, its last owner’s son, Silas Mitchell, published the revelation, proving that no skeptic had ever correctly guessed how it worked. In fact, no one had even come close. Over the years, three authors in particular had put forth the best known hypotheses, and Kempelen had fooled them all.

But the most intriguing mystery about the Turk would not turn out to be how it worked, but rather why a man like Kempelen would have built it. Kempelen was no Barnum. He was neither a showman nor a magician; he was an inventor and engineer of the highest caliber and held a series of important public works appointments in Maria Theresa’s government. The last thing he’d do would be to construct some sort of sideshow trick. The first of the three most notable proposed explanations came in 1789, by Joseph Friedrich, Freiherr zu Racknitz. He wrote a book based on his many viewings of the Turk and his friendship with Kempelen. Racknitz noted that the Turk’s exhibitor would always first open and close the cabinet’s various doors for the audience’s inspection. He concluded that a very small human operator was inside the cabinet, lying flat during the opening of the doors; and then, during game play, sat up, played the game on a small secondary chessboard, and watched magnetized needles on the bottom of the tabletop to learn what move the opponent had made. By Racknitz’s measurements, the hidden human would have had to be less than five feet tall, and less than seven inches high when lying flat. Kempelen refused to offer any assessment of Racknitz’s proposed solution.

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In 1821, Robert Willis, an engineer of musical instruments, published a pamphlet with his own explanation of the Turk. Willis noted in particular that the order in which the doors were opened for inspection never varied. This, he proposed, was to allow a hidden human operator to move from one part of the cabinet to another, allowing the various cabinets to be shown empty in sequence. Then, to play, the operator would sit up, place his own hand inside the Turk’s arm, and watch the board through the thin fabric shirt covering the Turk’s chest.

The best known analysis was that of Edgar Allan Poe, published in 1835, which ultimately found in favor of Willis’ explanation but differed in that it offered far deeper reasoned analysis of why it must be so. For example, Poe noted  .  .  .

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