The Mechanical Turk

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Podcast Transcript

You’ve probably heard of artificial intelligence systems which have gotten so good that they can beat the best humans at Go, chess, and even Jeopardy. 

However, over 200 years ago one Hungarian engineer created a mechanical device that could defeat the world’s greatest chess players. 

Sort of.

Learn more about The Mechanical Turk and how it convinced people for over 80 years that it could play chess, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Way back in the day, royal courts were very important places. You didn’t have easy communications so many nobles and members of the aristocracy would spend extended time at the palace. Here they would consult, gossip, scheme, and flatter the monarch.

They would also get really bored. 

Entertainment was a high priory at any European royal court. As a child, Wolfgang Mozart and his family traveled around Europe entertaining royal courts. 

In addition to music, there might be balls, banquets, poets, actors, storytellers, and magicians.

It was in the environment that a Hungarian engineer by the name of Wolfgang von Kempelen attended a session of court by the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria at Schönbrunn Palace, in 1769. 

During the session was a performance by a French illusionist by the name of François Pelletier. 

Pelletier act basically consisted of performing illusions with magnets whose properties were still relatively unknown in the mid 18th century. 

Kempelen was witness to his act and the reaction it got from the royal crowd in attendance. 

After the performance, Kempelen announced to those in attendance that he would create something which would top François Pelletier’s performance.

For six months he worked on his project. 

In 1770, he introduced his creation to the Empress and everyone at court….and they were blown away.

What Kempelen unveiled was…..different. It was a wooden mannequin with just the head, torso, and arms. It was dressed in traditional Turkish garb including robes, a turban, and a long clay pipe in its left hand.

The mannequin was positioned behind a waist-high cabinet. On the top of the cabinet was a chessboard. In the front was a drawer at the bottom which held the chess pieces, and two doors that revealed the complex inner workings of his machine. 

Inside was a very complicated assortment of gears, cogs, levers, and switches. There were also doors in the back of the cabinet such that an observer could see right through the entire device upon inspection. 

There were also doors at the back of the mannequin, and everything could be opened for inspection. 

What the machine would do, is play chess. He called it the Automaton Chess Player.

To begin his performance, he would open up all of the doors to the cabinet to show the audience what was inside. 

He would then announce that because of the nature of the device, it had to play white and go first. 

The first player was Count Ludwig von Cobenzl. He was easily beaten.

The machine then took on other opponents and defeated them all. 

Kempelen was not controlling the device. He would walk around the room giving commentary and asking the audience to bring magnets and iron to the cabinet to prove that it was not done through magnetism. 

The mannequin was also set up to nod twice if it had its opponent in check and three times if it checkmates. It could also shake its head if the opponent made an illegal move.

The pieces were moved by the left hand of the mannequin. 

There was also a letter board near the chessboard which allowed the machine to answer simple questions. 

The machine was dubbed the Mechanical Turk, or just the Turk, based on its dress. 

It was a smash hit at the Austrian court and it far surpassed its goal of upstaging Pelletier’s illusions. 

Automatons were nothing new. There were many of them that were built but they all did very simple things. You can still see many of these devices in clock towers all around Europe. 

This, however, was something totally different. This automaton seemed like it could think.

It instigated many debates at court as to how it worked. Some people thought that it must have been magnets. Some thought that it was controlled by supernatural powers. Some thought that a child or dwarf was located inside the cabinet. Other thought that it was actually just an intelligent machine.

The device appear at court in Vienna for four years until it was retired in 1774. 

Kempelen’s interest had moved on to other things including creating a box to recreate human speech. In the years that followed only one person played the Turk, Sir Robert Murray Keith of Scotland. After that, he completely dismantled the device. 

After Empress Maria Theresa died in 1780, her successor Joseph II encouraged Kempelen to rebuild the Turk and to take it on tour to the royal courts of Europe. 

He rebuilt the machine and started the tour in 1783, with the first stop being the court of Versailles. It was a hit with the French court and then it was put on public display. There were demands for the Turk to play the greatest French chess player at that time François-André Philidor.

Eventually, the match with Philidor was arranged. The Turk lost, but Philidor’s son said it was the most tiring game he ever played. 

The last game the Turk played in Paris was against Benjamin Franklin who was the American envoy to France at the time. He lost the game and remained fascinated with it for the rest of his life.

From there the tour went to London and then traveled throughout Germany visiting Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin. 

Eventually, the machine and Kempelen returned to Vienna where it sat, mostly unused until Kempelen’s death in 1804. 

In 1805, the Turk came into the hands of Johann Mälzel, a musician from Bavaria. He tried to buy it from Kempelen when he was alive, but he wanted too much money. He managed to get it from his son for only half price. 

Once he had access to the machine, he was able to figure out its secrets and made it work for himself. 

Famously, in 1809, after the conquest of Vienna, Napoleon Bonepart played the Mechanical Turk at Schönbrunn Palace. 

Instead of letting the Turk go first, Napoleon went first. Despite violating the rules, Mälzel allowed the game to continue.

Then, Napoleon tried to cheat. The Turk returned the piece to the original square. Then Napoleon tried to cheat again, and again, the Turk returned the piece. When Napoleon tried to cheat a third time, it swiped its hand across the board knocking all of the pieces on the floor. 

In 1811, he took the Turk to Italy for performance for the Viceroy of Italy who enjoyed it so much he offered him three times what Mälzel originally paid. He sold it, but then bought it back four years later. 

He continued touring with the Mechanical Turk taking on public performances in France and London, chalking up lopsided winning records wherever he went, and raking in money from audiences. He slowly added more elements to the performance to keep it interesting.

In 1826, he took the Turk to the United States. He began by conducting public performances in New York and Boston. The crowds were larger and more profitable than they ever were before.

For years he traveled with the machine throughout the US and Canada, going as far as Saint Louis. Edgar Allan Poe even wrote a poem titled “Maelzel’s Chess Player”.

Eventually, Mälzel died in 1838 en route to Europe trying to return home. The Turk eventually changed hands several times before winding up in a Philadelphia museum where it was destroyed in a fire in 1854.

The Mechanical Turk stunned audiences for almost 84 years. During that time, many people had theories about how it worked. Most of them had it completely wrong and only a few people actually figured out how it really worked. 

It wasn’t until 1857 when the son of the last owner revealed the secret in an article written in The Chess Monthly.

The secret to the trick is exactly what you probably think it was. There was a person inside the cabinet. 

All of the gears and cogs inside the cabinet were just a distraction. The drawer on the bottom only slid in about a third of the way. The person inside the cabinet was on a sliding seat. When the doors were opened, the seat would slide and components would move into place to show there was something there. 

The chessboard was very thin and there were magnets below the board to show where the moves were made. The Turk mannequin itself was controlled by levers inside the cabinet. 

The people inside the cabinet were not children or dwarfs. They changed over the years, but they were usually expert chess players. Johann Baptist Allgaier was the chess master who played Napoleon. 

Jacques François Mouret played in France. William Schlumberger mostly operated it during its time in the United States. Other men behind the machine included Aaron Alexandre and William Lewis, however, no one knows who was inside the cabinet during the initial performance in front of Empress Maria Theresa. 

One of the Turk’s most famous opponents was Charles Babbage who lost twice to the Turk.

He is significant because he actually created the world’s first mechanical computing device, the Difference Engine, which will be the subject of a future episode. 

It couldn’t really be said that computers were better than humans at chess until 1996 when IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat the reigning world champion, Garry Kasparov. 

The legacy of The Mechanical Turk still can be found today. Amazon has a service called The Mechanical Turk, where you can hire people to perform simple tasks that can’t otherwise be done easily by a computer. 

The fact that the Mechanical Turk is still remembered over 230 years after it was created, however, might have been Wolfgang von Kempelen’s greatest trick.