Thursday, 23 January 2014

The chess-playing "automaton" hoax - Johann Wolfgang Ritter von Kempelen de Pázmánd's Turk

23 January 1734, Johann Wolfgang Ritter von Kempelen de Pázmánd, civil servant, jurisprudent, inventor and father of the chess-playing "automaton" hoax The Turk, was born in Pressburg.

“The Automaton does not invariably win the game. Were the machine a pure machine this would not be the case- it would always win. The principle being discovered by which a machine can be made to play a game of chess, an extension of the same principle would enable it to win a game- a farther extension would enable it to win all games- that is, to beat any possible game of an antagonist. A little consideration will convince any one that the difficulty of making a machine beat all games, Is not in the least degree greater, as regards the principle of the operations necessary, than that of making it beat a single game. If then we regard the Chess-Player as a machine, we must suppose, (what is highly improbable,) that its inventor preferred leaving it incomplete to perfecting it- a supposition rendered still more absurd, when we reflect that the leaving it incomplete would afford an argument against the possibility of its being a pure machine - the very argument we now adduce.” (Edgar Allan Poe, “Maelzel's Chess-Player”)


A reconstruction from 2004 of the Turk from the Heinz-Nixdorf Museum*


It might be a bit unfair to reduce poor Wolfgang on his elaborate hoax, since he was a quite original innovator, architect and organiser in the service of the Austro-Hungarian government. Besides constructing a “speaking machine”, the first operative design of a mechanical reproduction of human speech, in fact speech synthesis, and a typewriter for the blind, Kempelen organised the redevelopment of the war-torn Banat region as well as translating the Codex Theresianus, the forerunner of the Austrian Civil Law Code into German and probably Hungarian as well. But it seems that Wolfgang was a bit of a rascal, too. After he had attended a performance of the French illusionist François Pelletier at the court of Empress Maria Theresa in Vienna, Wolfgang vowed to design a far more sophisticated hoax. And he did.

A self-portrait of Kempelen
Wolfgang’s version of Pinocchio was an apparently chess-playing automaton in the guise of a Turkish magician whose moves could obviously put even chess masters in their place, besides performing the knight’s tour, a sequence of moves where the chessman visits every square only once. The Turk sat behind a chess table that, when opened, revealed a complex arrangements of gears and cogs a bit like a clockwork, a magnetic chessboard was placed on the table and the Turk was controlled by levers – by a chess master hidden inside the box. The chess playing spirit in the machine challenged and won against most celebrities in Europe – Wolfgang did have the cheek to tour the courts with his hoax – it was Frederick the Great who bribed Wolfgang to reveal his secret in 1785 and was quite disappointed about the solution of the puzzle and the “Turk” was mothballed in Potsdam. 
In 1804, Wolfgang’s son sold the automaton to one Johann Nepomuk Mälzel who revived the tradition of touring with the Turk, through Europe and finally to the U.S. where the pair made its first appearance in New York in 1826 with the secret still in place. Fredrick obviously had kept mum. The Turk’s secret was never really revealed again and puzzled amateurs as well as professional circles until it was finally destroyed in a fire in Philadelphia in 1854. The Turk found his way into the realm of legends.

a computer museum in Paderborn in northwestern Germany, picture found on http://de.chessbase.com/post/der-trke-lebt-