The Turk who beat Napoleon

A so-called thinking machine dressed in oriental garb played chess like a master and may have inspired the father of modern computing, Charles Babbage. Jason England recounts the fascinating tale of deception.

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He was the world’s first “thinking machine”, the first humanoid robot and the first mechanical device to defeat a human at chess. Unfortunately, he was also a fraud whose workings are still shrouded in mystery nearly 250 years after he was created.

“The Turk”, as the orientally garbed automaton came to be known, owed its existence to a bet with the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa.

In 1769 she had watched the performance of Monsieur Pelletier, a magician from Paris. Also in attendance was inventor and amateur scientist Wolfgang von Kempelen. When Maria Theresa asked von Kempelen’s opinion of Pelletier’s illusion act von Kempelen shocked the crowd by claiming that anyone with the requisite mechanical knowledge could produce something even more amazing. Whether he was merely boasting is unclear. But the Empress insisted von Kempelen must make good on his claim. Six months later he delivered.

In the spring of 1770 von Kempelen appeared before the empress and her court at Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna. With him was a seated figure behind a large cabinet. The cabinet was approximately 121 cm long, 91 cm high, and 76 cm deep with several doors at the front and back. The life-sized figure was a carved wooden man dressed in elegant Turkish clothing and wearing a large turban – just as European audiences of the time believed magi and sorcerers “should” look. In front of the figure sat a standard chessboard.

To begin, von Kempelen opened the two front doors of the cabinet to expose the inner clockwork-style mechanism. Stepping behind the cabinet, he opened three more doors, allowing the audience to see through it.

After convincing the audience that the cabinet was empty, chess pieces were placed on the board. An audience member with knowledge of the game was selected as the Turk’s opponent. The Turk would play the white pieces and therefore had the first move. Von Kempelen took a large key of the sort one would use to wind a clock and gave it several turns. The Turk slowly raised his head, looked over the audience a few times, and then reached forward with his left hand and made his move. The audience was stunned.

Although no record of the exact moves is known to exist, the Turk’s first public game was over rather quickly, with the Turk emerging the victor. The age of intelligent machines had apparently begun.

The Turk swept his arm across the board, knocking over all of the pieces – to Napoleon’s delight.

Von Kempelen then “retired” the Turk. But he was constantly asked for demonstrations. In 1783, a decade after its debut, von Kempelen was essentially forced by royal decree to take the Turk on an 18-month European tour. In 1809 it played against Napoleon himself.

As usual, the Turk was soon in a commanding position. The Emperor attempted an illegal move. The Turk replaced the piece on to its proper square. Napoleon tried another illegal move. This time the Turk removed the offending piece from the board entirely. Amused by this, Napoleon attempted a third illegal move. The Turk swept his arm across the board, knocking over all of the pieces – to Napoleon’s delight.

Scientists were at a loss to explain how such a device could work – a child or dwarf hidden within the apparatus was a leading theory.

In truth, a human was concealed within the cabinet and would contort to hide behind the clockwork mechanism when the cabinet doors were opened. This hidden operator worked the mechanism that moved the Turk’s head, eyes and left arm and of course had to be a strong player to ensure victory most of the time. The Turk was merely an elaborate puppet.

The automaton chess player continued to amaze audiences in Europe and America until it was destroyed in a fire in 1854. The Turk was gone but the impact of a game he’d played decades earlier was perhaps yet to be felt.

On 12 February 1820 the Turk played against a young Charles Babbage, the inventor of the difference engine and the father of modern computing. Is it possible that what began as a fake demonstration of intelligence gave Babbage the inspiration for actual mechanical calculation? We may never know, but it’s plausible.

In 1996 IBM’s Deep Blue became the first computer to defeat a sitting world chess champion, Garry Kasparov.

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