This Computer Wore A Turban And Played Chess!


The Turk was a chess-playing machine of the late 18th century, promoted as an automaton but later proved to be a hoax.  Unveiled in 1770 and given its common name based on its appearance the mechanism appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against any human opponent.  The Turk was in fact a mechanical illusion that allowed a human chess master to hide inside and operate the machine.  With a skilled operator, the Turk won most of the games played. The machine was demonstrated around Europe and the Americas for over 80 years until its destruction by fire in 1854, playing and defeating many challengers including Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.

People in 18th and 19th century Europe were baffled.  They examined the intricate gears and precisely wrought machinery of “The Turk” and almost all concluded that it was an incredible machine, a machine that could think.  This ingenious deception, created in 1769, had a long and checkered past.  The original Turk was built by a Hungarian engineer, Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, and played all over Europe for decades.  It arrived in the USA in 1840 and was purchased by Dr. John Mitchell, M.D., a Professor of Medicine and Surgery at Jefferson Medical College and President of the first Philadelphia Chess Club for $400.

Sadly, The Turk was destroyed in a fire in 1854 where it was stored at a museum in Philadelphia. The details of its actual operation have always remained a secret and subject to much false speculation.  In 1770 the Turk was exhibited in Vienna at the court of Austrian Empress Marie Theresa.  The illusion took the form of a man in Turkish costume seated at a desk with a chessboard in front of him.  Doors and panels were opened up to show that nothing was concealed under the desk.  To the unknowing the underside of the desk was full of mechanical wheels and pulleys that resembled the inside of a clock.  The mechanism was wound up and set in operation to play chess. Against all comers it would play chess almost every time.

Turk was in fact a mechanical illusion that allowed a human chess master to hide inside and operate the machine. With a skilled operator, the Turk won most of the games played.  Charles Babbage, the godfather of the computer, played two games against the Turk.  Magicians based illusions on it, and it is regarded as a precuror of what we now call “artificial intelligence”.  Though some people suspected there was a trick involved, nobody could figure it out, and the automaton attracted crowds wherever it went.

The design of the machine allowed the presenter to open every available door to the public, to maintain the illusion.  Neither the clockwork visible to the left side of the machine nor the drawer that housed the chess set extended fully to the rear of the cabinet; they instead went only one third of the way.  A sliding seat was also installed, allowing the operator inside to slide from place to place and thus evade observation as the presenter opened various doors.  The sliding of the seat caused dummy machinery to slide into its place to further conceal the person inside the cabinet.  It was a great deception.

The chessboard on the top of the cabinet was thin enough to allow for magnetic linkage.  Each piece in the chess set had a small but strong magnet attached to its base, and when they were placed on the board the pieces would attract another magnet attached to a string under their specific place on the board.  This allowed the operator inside the machine to see which pieces moved and where on the board.

In 1836 an anonymous article appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger.  The article, through careful analysis, exposed the automaton to be an outlandish hoax.  The author speculated that there was a man hidden inside the cabinet who was working the machinery.  The anonymous article was written by Edgar Allan Poe.

Except for a few magazine articles and books about oddities and curiosities, the Turk has been mostly forgotten by history.  Too bad.