The Mechanical Turk

The Turk, the Mechanical Turk or Automaton Chess Player was a fake chess-playing machine constructed in the late 18th century. From 1770 until its destruction by fire in 1854, it was exhibited by various owners as an automaton, though it was exposed in the early 1820s as an elaborate hoax.

Imagine a half-open wooden desk with a chessboard and a human sized dressed puppet at one side of the table. Visible are some cogs and other mechanics that appear to control the puppet.

The Mechanical Turk

Constructed and unveiled in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen to impress the Empress Maria Theresa, 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. Although many had suspected the hidden human operator, the hoax was initially revealed only in the 1820s by the Londoner Robert Willis.

The identity of the operator within the mechanism during Kempelen’s original tour remains a mystery. When the device was later purchased and exhibited by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, the chess masters who secretly operated it included Johann Allgaier, Boncourt, Aaron Alexandre, William Lewis, Jacques Mouret, and William Schlumberger.

The nineteenth century English mathematician, philosopher, inventor, and mechanical engineer Charles Babbage also played the Turk and lost. In his professional career Babbage originated the concept of a programmable computer. If he had known that the ‘mechanical chess-computer’ was in fact a man-operated Turkish puppet controlling a chessboard. Imagine how it could have damaged the future of the computer if Babbage would have discovered the mechanical Turk was just an illusion.

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