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How Did A Fake 18th Century Chess Robot Fool the World?

The history of chess dates back almost 1500 years ago. The game is said to have originated from Northern India during the 6th century AD and made its way to Persia. Shortly after, the game gained popularity in Spain and spread to Southern Europe. But did you know about the story of the Turk?

The Turk was the world’s first chess-playing machine. It was able to beat any individual it played against, including notable chess players like Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin. A century later, it was revealed that the Turk was actually a chess master hidden inside a box. 

Who Invented the Turk?

Wolfgang von Kempelen, an inventor and royal advisor to the Austria-Hungary empress Maria Theresa, vowed to build an automaton whose illusion would amaze spectators beyond belief. The empress was intrigued and allowed him to take a leave of absence to work on his project. 

Kempelen came back six months later with a contraption that would be named The Turk. Its first performance was at the empress’ court in 1770 in from of the empress herself and a group of nobles.

Everyone at the court watched Kempelen wheel out a four-foot cabinet that was said to be an automaton chess player. He started the show by unlocking the cabinet and revealing the complex machinery within. After showing the audience the inner workings of his machine, he went on to pick out an opponent from the audience. He would then walk to the side of the device and wind the crank. The dummy on the machine would then move and make their first move. (Source: History)

What Did People Think About The Turk?

During its first exhibition, the Turk beat all its challengers, and it soon became the sensation of the court. The audience did not know how a mechanical device could win all the time. They speculated that magnets controlled the machine, and others believed that there was a child or dwarf inside the machine that carried out the moves.

The Turk was retired in 1774, but during the reign of Maria Theresa’s successor, Joseph II, it was revived. Under the emperor’s orders, Kempelen took the automaton on a tour of Europe with the first stop at Paris. The machine played against some of the world’s best chess masters and even beat Benjamin Franklin.

The tour continued for about two years, and the Turk traveled to England, Germany, and the Netherlands. At each place, it defeated almost all of its opponents and baffled everyone who tried to figure out the science behind the machine. (Source: History)

The Reveal

Kempelen passed away in 1804, and his masterpiece was purchased by a German inventor named Johann Maelzel. Maelzel toured with The Turk for the rest of his life and added a mechanical voice box to the machine. One of Maelzel’s biggest shows was in 1809 when Napoleon Bonaparte played with The Turk. Napoleon would try illegal moves during the game, and each time The Turk would simply return the piece to where it had been, and the dummy on the machine would just shake its head. Bonaparte lost the game.

The secret of The Turk was kept for over 65 years. The truth started to unravel when Maelzel died in 1838. The automaton ended up in the hands of his creditors, who sold the piece to a group of enthusiasts.

The critics were right, The Turk was being controlled by a human operator, all the machinery inside the device were decoys, and the hollow space within served as a compartment for the chess master who would then use a series of levers and discs to make the moves. Both Kempelen and Maelzel enlisted skilled chess players during their travels.

On the American tour, Maezel used William Schlumberger, a European chess master, to operate The Turk. (Source: History)

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