The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess Playing Machine

by Tom Standage

Published by Walker & Company Books

224 pages, 2002

Buy it online



Automation (from aytoz, -self, and mav, to seize): a self-moving machine, or one in which the principle of motion is contained within the mechanism itself. According to this description, clocks, watches and all machines of a similar kind are automata, but the word is generally applied to contrivances, which simulate for a time the motions of animal life. --Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition (1911).

On an autumn day in 1769, Wolfgang von Kempelen, a thirty-five-year-old Hungarian civil servant, was summoned to the imperial court in Vienna by Maria Theresa, empress of Austria-Hungary, to witness the performance of a visiting French conjurer. Kempelen was well versed in physics, mechanics, and hydraulics, and was a trusted servant of the empress. She had invited him on a whim because she wanted to see what an expert in scientific matters would make of the conjurer's tricks. Yet the performance was to change the course of Kempelen's life. It set in motion a chain of events that led him to construct an extraordinary machine: a mechanical man, dressed in an oriental costume, seated behind a wooden cabinet, and capable of playing chess.

At the time, elaborate mechanical toys were a popular form of entertainment in the courts of Europe, though the technology they embodied was soon to be put to more serious uses. So Kempelen intended his chess-playing machine to do little more than amuse the court and advance his career by impressing the empress. But instead his automaton unexpectedly went on to achieve widespread fame throughout Europe and America, bringing Kempelen both triumph and despair. During its eighty-five-year career the automaton was associated with a host of historical figures, including Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Babbage, and Edgar Allan Poe. It was the subject of numerous stories and anecdotes and inspired many legends and outright fabrications, the truth of many of which will never be known. The chess player was, in fact, destined to become the most famous automaton in history. And along the way, Kempelen's work would unwittingly help to inspire the development of the power loom, the telephone, the computer, and the detective story.

To modern eyes, in an era when it takes a supercomputer to defeat the world chess champion, it seems obvious that Kempelen's chess-playing machine had to have been a hoax--not a true automaton at all but a contraption acting under the surreptitious control of a human operator, like a puppet dancing on a string. How, after all, would it have been possible to build a genuine chess-playing machine using eighteenth-century clockwork and mechanical technology? But during the eighteenth century automata of extraordinary ingenuity were being constructed and exhibited across Europe, including Jacques de Vaucanson's mechanical duck, Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz's harpsichord player, and John Joseph Merlin's dancing lady. Mechanical devices seemed to offer limitless new technological possibilities. So the notion that Kempelen's machine really could play chess did not seem totally out of the question.

Even among the skeptics who insisted it was a trick, there was disagreement about how the automaton worked, leading to a series of claims and counterclaims. Did it rely on mechanical trickery, magnetism, or sleight of hand? Was there a dwarf, or a small child, or a legless man hidden inside it? Was it controlled by a remote operator in another room or concealed under the floor? None of the many explanations put forward over the years succeeded in fully fathoming Kempelen's secret and served only to undermine each other. Indeed, it is only recently, following the construction of a replica of the automaton, that the full secret of its operation has been uncovered.

By choosing to make his machine a chess player, a contraption apparently capable of reason, Kempelen sparked a vigorous debate about the extent to which machines could emulate or replicate human faculties. The machine's debut coincided with the beginnings of the industrial revolution, when machines first began to displace human workers, and the relationship between people and machines was being redefined. The chess player posed a challenge to anyone who took refuge in the idea that machines might be able to outperform humans physically but could not outdo them mentally. The reactions it inspired thus foreshadowed modern reactions to the computer, over 200 years later. And the automaton's curious tale, running in a parallel course alongside the prehistory of computing but connecting in a few key places, has now assumed a new significance as scientists and philosophers continue to debate the possibility of machine intelligence.

Kempelen never gave his automaton a name, but its distinctive oriental costume gave rise to a nickname almost immediately, and it is known to this day as the Turk. This is the story of its remarkable and checkered career.  | April 2002


Tom Standage was born in London and studied engineering and theoretical computing at Dulwich College and Oxford University. He has covered science and technology for a number of newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian, The Independent, Wired, FEED and The Financial Times. Former Deputy Editor of the Daily Telegraph's technology section, Connected, he is now Science and Technology Correspondent for The Economist. His first book, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers (Walker & Company, 1998), was published on both sides of the Atlantic. Tom Standage lives in Greenwich, England, with his wife and daughter.


Reprinted by permission of Walker & Company from their edition of The Turk, published April 2002