Regency Bicentennial:   The Turk Returns to London

Two hundred years ago, a chess-playing automaton returned to London, where it was on exhibit for much of the year. This same automaton, widely known as "The Turk," had already been displayed in England, thirty-five years before. However, a few tweaks had been made to the machine since its last tour of Britain. More importantly, there was a whole new generation of people in Britain who had never seen The Turk. One of those people was inspired to create what is now considered to be the first mechanical computer. To help increase the public’s interest, the owner of The Turk had a few other mechanical contraptions which were included in his exhibition. A visit to The Turk might make for an amusing or engaging scene in a Regency romance.

A brief history of The Turk and its 1818 return to London . . .

The Turk was a full-size pseudo clock-work machine which supposedly could play chess so well that it beat most of its opponents. The machine was designed and constructed by Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian inventor, civil engineer and mathematician, who was working in the court of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. One day, in 1769, a French illusionist, François Pelletier, put on a magic show, using magnets as part of the illusions, for the pleasure of the Empress and her court. Maria Theresa was fascinated by science and invited Kempelen to attend, because she wanted his scientific opinion of the performance. Kempelen was quite unimpressed by the show and claimed he could do better. The Empress promptly excused him from all of his official duties and gave him six months to prove his claim, by producing his own magic/illusion show. Rather than design several small, discrete magic illusions, Kempelen decided he could best show his skill by creating a single, truly dramatic machine which could perform a very complex series of actions which would thoroughly mystify the Empress and anyone else who saw it.

Kempelen set to work immediately. Automata were very popular at this time, and the game of chess was becoming increasingly fashionable among the upper classes. Therefore, Kempelen determined that he would build a machine that could play chess against a human player. Of course, six months was not long enough for him to develop a machine which could actually play chess well. Therefore, he concentrated on building a showy machine which could give that impression, while completely concealing the fact that a human chess master was actually directing all the moves. He was so successful that his intricate machine not only mystified the Empress Maria, but it would go on to amaze and confound people around the world for nearly a century. In fact, his chess-playing machine became so popular that Kempelen, a serious scientist, actual came to regret his invention and did his best to distance himself from it after its initial period of exhibition was finished.

Kempelen’s machine was designed and constructed as a large, enclosed cabinet which was more than three feet wide, two feet deep, and nearly three feet tall. A chess board measuring about eighteen inches square was attached to the top of the cabinet. The body of the cabinet had a full-width drawer at the base of the front, in which was stored the red and white ivory chess pieces, and a cushion for the arm of the automaton. It also had doors at both the front and the back, which could be opened to show a series of compartments filled with a variety of gears, sprockets, levers, cams and cogs that supposedly operated the chess-playing figure. That life-size figure, made mostly of wood, was seated on a chair attached to the back of the cabinet. Probably because he was creating a magic show for the Empress, Kempelen dressed his figure in the rich traditional dress of the Ottoman Empire, the land also known as Turkey. The garments have been described as those of an oriental sorcerer, quite fitting for a magic show. The figure had a black beard and grey eyes, and wore a large turban on its head. It wore gloves on its hands and often held a long Turkish-style tobacco pipe in its left hand. The entire machine was mounted on casters so it could be easily moved around.

Wolfgang von Kempelen debuted his fantastic new machine at the Austria court of Maria Theresa, in 1770. From the very first, it completely astonished those who saw it, since this life-size automaton won most of the chess games it played against any human challenger. Before the performance, Kempelen opened the doors of the cabinet, one at a time, while holding a candle inside to illuminate the compartments of complex machinery within, so everyone could be assured there was no living being inside. He then used a large key to wind up the clockworks which supposedly operated the automaton. What was not known to those watching was that the real "magic" of the machine was the design of the interior of the cabinet. Most of the gears, sprockets, levers and cams were merely for show. They were fitted to partitions within the cabinet which rolled or swung into other positions as the doors were opened and closed, in a very particular order. These partitions obscured a small rolling seat which was used by the chess master who directed all the chess moves made by the wooden automaton. The sound of the operation of the clockwork mechanism was intended to cover any small sounds made by the chess master inside the cabinet as he operated the arm of the automaton and moved chess pieces on the board.

Once the audience had been shown the inside of the cabinet and all the doors had been closed, the chess pieces would be removed from the drawer and set up on the board on top of the cabinet. A member of the audience was invited to step forward to play a game of chess with the automaton, which had been dubbed "The Turk" for his exotic dress. In some cases, the human opponent was selected before the chess playing exhibition began. For most exhibitions, The Turk was usually assigned the white chess pieces and therefore had the first move. After the human challenger had come forward and taken their seat on the other side of the cabinet, opposite The Turk, Kempelen stepped to the side of the machine and turned a large crank. This brought The Turk to life, and the automaton slowly turned his head from side to side, then relinquished its grasp on the long smoking pipe and reached out to make the first move of the game. The Turk played chess with its left hand, apparently an oversight that Kempelen did not notice until the machine was nearly complete. By then, it was too late to reconfigure the machine to play with the right hand, which would have been more usual. During the chess game, the audience saw only the actions of The Turk and his human opponent.

However, the real action of the machine all took place inside the cabinet, which despite its appearance, was large enough to accommodate a chess master of average size. This man, whom Kempelen dubbed "the director," slid into his playing position on a small rolling bench once the last of the cabinet doors were closed. The chess board affixed to the top of the cabinet was thin enough to allow for magnetic attraction and each square was numbered to correspond to that square on the board above. Kempelen had taken measures to ensure the magnets inside his cabinet were shielded from any magnets but those required to operate the machine. In fact, he often positioned a large magnet near the cabinet during a chess game in order to prove that The Turk was not under magnetic control. The hidden chess master was able to track the moves made on the chess board on the cabinet top by small magnets on the underside, each of which was attached to a string and would be drawn to the square on the bottom of the board when a chess piece was placed above it. Within the cabinet, the hidden director had a small lamp or candle which lit the interior so he could see the action on the board above and make his own moves. Once the human opponent made a move on the chess board, the chess master within the cabinet could see its position on the board above him, based on the locations of the magnets and the strings. In front of him, he had a pegboard-style chess board on which he was playing a duplicate version of the game. As he made each of his own moves on the secondary board, a complex arrangement of wires operated a mechanism similar to a pantograph which controled the left hand and arm of The Turk. Therefore, when the hidden chess director made his move on the pegboard chess board, The Turk then appeared to make his next chess move.

Kempelen added a couple of additional features to his machine which were also intended to impress his audiences. The Turk could converse with his opponent, or the spectators, by the use of a letter board on the top of the cabinet. This board, on which all of the letters of the alphabet were inscribed, enabled the hidden chess master to communicate by spelling out a few words or brief phrases. The original chess master within the cabinet during the initial exhibitions was able to direct The Turk’s conversations in German, French or English. Most commonly, the hidden director would have The Turk spell out "Check" in the appropriate language whenever his move would put the opponent’s king in check. In addition, The Turk was capable of completing a famous chess puzzle known as the "knight’s tour" perfectly every time. In order to complete this complex chess puzzle, a knight must be moved around the chess board with the standard move allowed to that chess piece. The standard move for the knight is two squares horizontally and one square vertically, or two squares vertically and one square horizontally, in an L-shape. During its "tour" of the chess board, the knight had to land once, but only once, on each square on the chess board. The reason The Turk was able to promptly and efficiently move the knight along the path of his "tour" of the chess board was that the pegboard chess board used by the hidden director had a map of the knight’s route traced upon it.

In its debut chess game, The Turk beat its human opponent in less than a half hour, causing all who saw the exhibition to marvel at this wondrous automaton. During subsequent exhibitions, The Turk typically won most of the chess games it played. It also routinely did a complete knight’s tour with no errors or hesitation. This fantastic new machine was extremely well-received at the court of Austria and its fame quickly spread across the country and then the Continent. After a handful of exhibitions in Austria, Kempelen, a serious scientist, assumed that he had proven his superiority to François Pelletier with his automaton. He was eager to return to his work as a civil engineer and inventor, working on real problems. In fact, he was a bit embarrassed by The Turk, because he knew it was basically a slight of hand trick created to give the impression of a magical device. Kempelen felt it would damage his standing as a serious scientist, should its true workings become known. Therefore, he refused to continue to exhibit the machine, and often claimed it needed repairs in order to deflect demands from chess players who wished to try their luck against The Turk. Eventually, he took to claiming that it had been dismantled for storage. For nearly a decade, Kempelen was able to avoid showing his chess-playing automaton.

In 1781, the year after the Emperor Joseph II succeeded his mother, Maria Theresa, to the throne of Austria, royal attention once again focused on The Turk. Much to Kempelen’s chagrin, Emperor Joseph ordered him to re-assemble The Turk and ensure it was in good working order in preparation for a state visit from the Grand Duke Paul of Russia and his entourage. The Grand Duke and his duchess were delighted with The Turk. So much so that Grand Duke Paul urged that the automaton be sent on a tour of Europe. The Emperor concurred, considering the marvelous automaton could only enhance the reputation of Austria. Despite his reluctance, Kempelen could not refuse both the Emperor and the Grand Duke. He had no choice but to agree to take The Turk on the road. In 1783, Kempelen and his chess-playing automaton embarked on their European tour. In Paris, The Turk played chess against Benjamin Franklin, then serving as the ambassador from the United States. Though he lost the chess game, Franklin was fascinated by the automaton and enjoyed the game. Late in the year, The Turk was first shown in England, for a period of several months. In London, the price of admission to watch the automaton play chess was five shillings.

During the course of the tour, a number of people began to speculate on the internal workings of The Turk. One of them was the British writer and eccentric, Philip Thicknesse. In his pamphlet, The Speaking Figure and the Automaton Chess-player: Exposed and Detected, published in 1784, Thicknesse wrote that it was not possible for any machine to play chess against a human as well as did The Turk. He was convinced that a child prodigy chess player was concealed within the cabinet and it was this small chess player who was making the moves for The Turk, though he could not prove it. One elderly and very religious woman who saw The Turk in action, let out a loud shriek and ran to a back corner of the room. She was convince it was possessed by an evil spirit, which she believed was actually controlling the machine.

Despite a handful of vocal critics, the true workings of The Turk were not exposed during its European tour. After about three years, Kempelen and The Turk returned to Vienna. There, the automaton was once again dismantled and stored in the depths of the Schönbrunn Palace. Kempelen was able to return to his work as a civil servant and inventor, until his retirement in 1798. Several people tried to buy The Turk from Kempelen in the years that followed it tour of Europe, but he refused all offers. Wolfgang von Kempelen died in March of 1804, still the owner of The Turk. The following year, Kempelen’s son, Karl, sold The Turk to Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, a Bavarian inventor and engineer. It is not clear whether Karl von Kempelen explained the operation of The Turk to Maelzel, or if Maelzel figured it out for himself as he re-assembled and restored the inner workings of the automaton.

Later in 1805, once he had restored The Turk, Maelzel took it on a European tour, beginning in Paris. It had been so long since The Turk had been seen in public that the tour was quite successful. By 1809, Maelzel was back in Vienna with his chess-playing automaton. That year, while conducting the Wagram campaign, Napoleon Bonaparte paid a visit to the Austrian capital. During his stay, he let it be known that he wanted to play chess against The Turk. On the order of the Austrian Emperor, Maelzel made the necessary arrangements. However, when he sat down to play, Napoleon demanded that he have the first move of the game, even though he had the red (dark) chess pieces, not the white ones. Maelzel had little choice but to allow Bonaparte to have the first move. However, Napoleon’s first move was illegal, at which point, The Turk simply shook his head, picked up that chess piece and returned it to its original position. Ignoring his mechanical opponent’s warning, Napoleon tried yet another illegal opening move. He got the same response. But on his third attempt, The Turk swiped his arm across the chess board, knocking all the chess pieces off the cabinet top and scattering them on the floor. The automaton then refused to continue the game. Whether that action amused or annoyed Bonaparte, he finally ceased tying to cheat and settled down to play an honest game of chess. The game lasted barely twenty minutes and in the end, The Turk was victorious. Bonaparte was soundly beaten in nineteen moves.

Soon thereafter, perhaps because The Turk had so thoroughly trounced his step-father, Eugène de Beauharnais offered Johann Maelzel the substantial sum of thirty thousand francs for the chess-playing automaton. Since the offer would mean a large profit, and Maelzel was busy with other inventions, he agreed to sell The Turk to Beauharnais. Maelzel was the son of an organ builder and he had maintained a life-long interest in music. One of his new inventions was an updated version of the metronome. By 1816, he had moved to Paris to set up a manufactory and sell his patented version of the metronome, with a written testimonial from his friend, Ludwig van Beethoven. In 1817, Maelzel returned to Bavaria and spent some time in Munich, the home of Eugène de Beauharnais. During that Bavarian sojourn, Maelzel was able to re-purchase The Turk and shipped it back to Vienna.

In Vienna, Maelzel completely refurbished the machine and also added some new features. Like Kempelen, Maelzel was interested in machines which talked and had made a number of them over the course of his career. Maelzel removed the letter board from the top of the cabinet which The Turk had used to communicate with its opponents and spectators. Instead, he installed a mechanical voice box of his own creation, by which The Turk could say "Échec!" when placing his opponent’s king in check, and could say "Échec et mat!" when he had is opponent in checkmate. Though the voice box was only able to speak the words in French, most educated people in Europe at that time knew enough French that they would have understood The Turk’s meaning. A small knob and pointer was added to the cabinet, with a circle of numbers from 0 to 9 which was mirrored on the inside and outside. This device could be used by the exhibitor or the hidden director as a means of communication. Both settled on the meaning of each number, such as to notify the exhibitor that the director’s candle had gone out, or for the exhibitor to notify the director that the game should move along more quickly.

Once he had finished his refurbishment and upgrades to the machine, Maelzel was nearly ready to take The Turk on yet another tour of Europe. But first, he had to spend some time in Paris, where some of the best chess players ion the Continent were known to congregate. In Paris, Maelzel recruited a new chess master, Jacques François Mouret, to become the hidden director for The Turk. After Maelzel had trained the new director to on the various the internal workings of the machine, how to remain concealed as the doors were opened and closed and to smoothly operate all of the complex systems in the cabinet, the tour was ready to begin. During the tour, the chess master traveled as Maelzel’s personal secretary, in order to conceal the real reason that he was part of The Turk’s traveling entourage.

In 1818, The Turk traveled to London for the first time in thirty-five years. The Turk went on display in a room at No. 4, Spring Gardens, Monday through Saturday, with an admission price of two shillings, six pence for adults and one shilling, six pence for children. There were three separate viewing session each day, one at one o’clock, one at three o’clock and one at eight o’clock. During the daytime sessions, at one and three o’clock, the chess pieces were set up on The Turk’s chess board as a game in progress. Those in attendance were challenged to play that game to the finish. However, the evening sessions, which began at eight o’clock, were complete chess games. First, the cabinet was wheeled in from another room, then Maelzel went through the process of opening each door in the cabinet in the order necessary to conceal the presence of the hidden chess master, illuminating each cavity in turn with a lighted candle. The chess pieces were removed from the lower drawer and the chess board was then set up for a new game. As usual, with the white pieces for The Turk and the red pieces for the human challenger. Having the white pieces, The Turk had the first move. Against some challengers, Maelzel offered to remove the king’s bishop’s pawn from The Turk’s set, in order handicap his automaton when it played against less skilled players. This helped to attract more challengers. Once the chess board was set, Maelzel then wound up the clockworks within the cabinet and turned the crank which brought The Turk to life.

Maelzel had added some new gestures to better communicate The Turk’s reactions. Before he made his first move of a game, The Turk turned his head from side to side, surveying the board, giving the impression he was sizing up the new player, the board and planning his move. If the human opponent made an illegal move, The Turk would still pick up the chess piece and return it to its original location. He then placed his right hand on the table top and gently drummed his fingers as if annoyed. Then, without allowing his opponent to make another, correct move, The Turk immediately went on to make his own next move, the loss of the opponent’s move serving as punishment for his attempt to cheat. If the human player took too long to make their next move, The Turk would tap his right hand on the table top to signal his impatience. The Turk was also capable of rolling his eyes, which he sometimes did when his opponent made a particularly poor move.

The London exhibition proved to be too demanding for a single chess master. Therefore, Mouret, the French chess master, concentrated on the evening exhibitions in which full games were played. Maelzel engaged an Englishman, W. J. Hunneman, as the chess master for the shorter, "end games," which were played during the afternoon sessions. With Maelzel’s permission, Hunneman took copious, detailed notes of fifty of the chess games which were most often played by The Turk during the course of the tour of Britain. Hunneman used his notes to write a book, Chess: A Selection of Fifty Games, from Those Played by the Automaton Chess-player, During Its Exhibition in London, in 1820. This small book was not published until late in 1819, or in early 1820, when it was on sale during the second exhibition of The Turk in London.

However, Hunneman’s small book on the fifty chess games most often played by The Turk was not the first publication related to this chess-playing automaton during its tour of Britain. A pamphlet entitled Observations on the Automaton Chess Player, purportedly "By An Oxford Graduate," was published in London, for J. Hatchard. This thirty-three page pamphlet was on sale for the price of a shilling. Some scholars who have studied the history of The Turk believe that this pamphlet was actually written by, or for, Johann Maelzel, to help bring more public attention to The Turk. Though it carries a copyright date of 1819, there is some suggestion that this pamphlet may have been available in 1818, since it notes that The Turk was on display at 4, Spring Gardens, the location where it was shown in the metropolis in 1818. It is possible that this pamphlet was first on sale only at Hatchard’s and was made available by other London book sellers after The Turk returned to the metropolis late in 1819.

For most of 1819, Maelzel took The Turk on a tour of the English provinces and Scotland. Those exhibitions were handled in much the same way as those in London had been. However, it would appear that in many of the smaller cities and towns, at least one of the daytime exhibition sessions was eliminated. It is likely that W. J. Hunneman used this extra time to expand and refine the notes he was taking on the chess games played by The Turk. So far as is known, The Turk was very popular wherever it went on display. Most audiences were properly amazed and mystified by its life-like appearance and gestures as well as the remarkable skill by which it won most of its chess matches. It certainly would have been a principal topic of conversation among most of the people who saw it in action. It must be noted that the majority of the human chess players who challenged The Turk during its tour of Britain were men. However, there is some indication that at least a few women took their turn against the mechanical chess player. In addition, Maelzel was very fond of children, and he often invited any children in the audience to sit in the seats at the front. In some cases, he even had sweetmeats on hand for them.

Near the end of 1819, Maelzel and The Turk’s entourage traveled back to London for a return engagement. This time, the chess-playing automaton was on display at the exhibition rooms located at No. 29, St. James’s Street. The admission price was the same as it had been in 1818. However, in order to draw more spectators for this second run, Maelzel also put two of his own inventions on display as part of the show. These additional attractions were an automaton trumpet player and the Conflagration of Moscow. The trumpeter was a genuine automaton which Maelzel himself had created in 1808. It was a life-size figure which could not only play the trumpet, but could also walk or march around, under the direction of its human director. This figure could be dressed in a selection of garments, most of them national costumes and military uniforms. Maelzel typically dressed his trumpeter in the costume most appropriate to the audience for which his automaton performed. With his background in music, Maelzel had created a mechanism which was capable a pure, clear sound which was always played in correct time. The automaton was powered by a clockwork mechanism which was wound up by a key inserted into an opening in its left thigh. The mechanical trumpeter was able to play a selection of musical pieces, the performance triggered by a switch which was concealed in its left shoulder. During some performances, Maelzel accompanied his trumpeter on the piano.

The Conflagration of Moscow was perhaps even more impressive than the trumpeter. It was a small, realistic, clockwork panorama of the burning of the city of Moscow during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, which Maelzel had actually witnessed. This small, but complex panorama was created in 1813, not long after he had returned to Vienna. It depicted a view of the burning city from the Kremlin, as the French troops entered Moscow and the Russian forces were evacuating, against a painted backdrop of the larger city. The tiny figures of troops of soldiers and fleeing citizens within the model of the city were carefully depicted as Maelzel himself remembered the event. In addition to the miniature moving figures, a set of powerful lamps with colored lenses helped provide the effects of a great fire while music was played, punctuated by the sound of cannon shots. Even though the actual burning of Moscow had taken place more than seven years before, there was still much interest in the battles of the Napoleonic Era, particularly one which took place in such an exotic locale as the city of Moscow, in far away Russia.

Maelzel continued the second London exhibition of his various machines until at least the middle of 1820. For most of that run, he received a lot of good press which ensured he had a steady stream of curious visitors who were eager to view the objects he had on display. However, there was at least one visitor who was certain that The Turk was not what it was represented to be. This was Robert Willis, an intelligent young man with a fascination for mechanical devices. After several visits to see The Turk, during one of which he smuggled in an umbrella for use in measuring the cabinet, Willis wrote An Attempt to Analyse the Automaton Chess Player of Mr. de Kempelen: With an Easy Method of Imitating the Movements of that Celebrated Figure., which was published in 1821. In his book, Willis speculates that The Turk was operated by a full-size man hidden within the device, since he had noted that the cabinet doors were always opened and closed in the same order. But he speculated that this hidden chess player was able to see the moves made by the human opponent because he was able to view the chess board on the top of the cabinet through a slit in the robes which covered the torso of the figure. He also correctly speculated that the loud noise of the clockwork mechanism was intended to cover the sounds made by the hidden human. However, this pamphlet was not published until 1821, by which time, Maelzel had taken The Turk and his other devices back to the Continent to continue his tour.

The second tour of The Turk through England came as the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. This chess-playing automaton raised many disturbing questions with regard to the nature of human thought, the power of automation and the idea that machines which could think intelligently might be created by man. Some people had grave misgivings that machines might indeed begin to replace human beings. One of the challengers who played The Turk while it was on tour in Britain was a young man by the name of Charles Babbage. Though he was certain it was some kind of hoax or clever trick, Babbage lost both of the chess games he played against The Turk. He also watched The Turk successfully execute the Knight’s Tour over his chess board at least once. These experiences seem to have planted the seed in Babbage’s mind of a machine that could think, which stayed with him long after Maelzel and The Turk had returned to Europe. Three years later, this seed bore fruit, when Charles Babbage designed and built what is now considered to be the first mechanical computer, the Difference Engine, which could calculate mathematical functions automatically.

Dear Regency Authors, The Turk made quite a splash during its tour of Britain, from 1818 to 1820. There are so many ways in which this complex device might be used to enrich a romance of that period. Perhaps a group of characters goes to an exhibition one afternoon or evening. Maybe one of those characters plays a game of chess against this automaton. Will it be the hero or the heroine? Characters might argue about whether or not the automaton can truly think or is it a hoax. How will that end? Or, might a very religious character rail against going to see such a godless, inhuman machine? Another topic of conversation might be how The Turk really functioned. At the time, some people thought it was operated from within the cabinet by child or a dwarf, while others thought it was a chess player who had lost his legs and thus fit inside the cabinet. Another theory was that the mechanism was operated by a trained monkey. Some people thought a full-size human crawled up inside the body of The Turk and played the game from within the figure. There is another plot point which might be offered by The Turk or a similar fictional device. Since there was enough space within the cabinet to accommodate a full-size human, such a device could be used to smuggle someone out of danger, or behind enemy lines for an espionage mission. Are there other ways in which The Turk, or a fictional automaton might serve the plot of an upcoming Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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3 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   The Turk Returns to London

  1. my mind wandered to two sisters in straitened circumstances, inspired my news of the Turk, and a suit of mail which is about all that is left to them in their dilapidated ancestral home, deciding to perform an imposture, one of the sisters wearing the armour, suitable decked out with a large key, and some cogs, to play chess, the other sister claiming it as an invention of their father. the hero of course susses it out and falls in love with the automaton girl even though he has never seen her.

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