Tom Standage has written a short book about an eighteenth century chess playing machine that was the hit of Europe. The Turk tells the story about a Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen who was an inventor during an age of great interest in clever mechanical devices. He created a machine which was named "The Turk" in 1769. It won almost all of the time in contests with human challengers. The machine was an instant success and it’s playing career extended all over Europe as well as America for some eighty five years. People such as Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte and Edgar Allan Poe as well as the heads of royalty admired the device. Over time there was countless speculation about whether it was in fact a machine and how it worked, but the secret was intact until it was retired.
The device played against challengers before paying audiences. The only requirement was that the machine played whites and made the first move. Only one game was played and performances were limited to an hour or so. The device would be rolled out from behind a curtain in front of the audience. The machine consisted of a cabinet with a human figure seated with a turban, hence the name "the Turk." The cabinet was about four feet long, two and half feet deep and was slightly raised off the floor. There were three doors in the front and the device could be rotated so that alls sides could be seen from every angle by the audience. The figure had its right arm extended and resting on the top of the cabinet with its eyes looking down at the top of the cabinet where the chess board was located. Kempelen would unlock the left door to show an elaborate mechanism of wheels, cogs and levers. He would walk around to the back and open another door behind the machinery. He would hold a lighted candle and move it around so the audience could see through the area. He would then go to the front where he opened the two other doors to show a red cushion and a small wooden box. He would then go to the back and open a door. Again, using a lighted candle, he would demonstrate that the audience was seeing through the cabinet. Leaving the doors open, he would rotate the cabinet for viewing. Next, he would close the doors, place the chess pieces on the board, place two lit candles on the top for illumination and then with a large key would wind the machine with a loud ratcheting sound. A whirring noise would follow and the figure would slowly turn it’s head from side to side. Next it would make it’s first move in a jerking motion with the arm. The human opponent would make it’s move and the Turk would respond.
The figure would shake its head if the opponent used a piece improperly such as treating a knight as a bishop and move the piece back to its original position. Every ten to twelve moves Kempelen would go to the cabinet and wind it up again. Otherwise he stood away from the device. It defeated some of Europe’s greatest players and was a sensation for years. Kempelen and his assistant traveled all over Europe and even America demonstrating the amazing chess playing machine he had created. After many years of exhibition, Kempelen retired the device.
Later it was purchased along with the secret and began another round of exhibits for many years. Later the secret was revealed by the purchaser, for a price, to a limited number of investors. After some time essential parts of the original were later lost when the purchaser was shipping the device and it was not demonstrated again. After some eighty five years of mystifying audiences the Turk was never to be seen in its original form again although a duplicate was created at a later time but not exhibited.
So what was the secret? Well, I shouldn’t tell you because I don’t want to ruin the book for you and you should buy it. However, since the book is interesting even knowing the secret I will disclose it. The short answer is that the cabinet was so cleverly designed it concealed a man inside in spite of the open doors and candle use by the sequence of opening the doors which allowed the person inside to assume different positions. Once all the doors were closed, the person inside would fold the fake machinery up and be able to sit up. He used a metal device to control the arm of the figure in moving pieces. The chess pieces on the board on top of the cabinet had magnets on the bottom. Whe they were moved and placed on a square it made contact with an underside disk that indicated the move that was just made to the person inside. He had a small chess board to duplicate moves on his chess board. He used a candle for inside illumination. The reason for limiting the performances was that the inside was dark, hot and candle smoke filled so no one could stay in that position for a longer period of time. Of course, Kempelen’s "assistant" was a chess master he had hired to hide inside the cabinet. It was an engenious device which fooled thousands of people over the years who marveled at the amazing "machine" Kempelen had invented and which caused countless speculation as to how it worked.
An amazing and entertaining story. As Sherlock Holmes, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four observed "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."