The 18th Century Robot

An engraving of the Turk from 1783.

An engraving of the Turk from 1783.

Snippets 64.  Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen exhibited something quite astonished for the first time in 1770: a robotic chess player. “The Turk” was a life-size human head and torso, which sat behind a cabinet to play chess against its opponents. For fifty years the world marvelled at this creation, until….

Well, first of all let’s take a look at a quote from Observations on the Automaton Chess Player Now Exhibited in London published anonymously in 1819, attributed only to “an Oxford Graduate”. To put this in perspective, Kempelen had died in 1804, after which his son had sold the Turk to Bavarian musician Johann Nepomuk Mälzel (his name will be familiar to students of Music theory for his metronome invention). In 1819, the year of this publication, Mälzel took the Turk on a tour of Great Britain.

The exhibiter begins by wheeling the chest to the entrance of the apartment within which it stands, and in face of the spectators. He then opens certain doors contrived in the chest, two in front, and two at the back, at the same time pulling out a long shallow drawer at the bottom of the chest made to contain the chess men, a cushion for the arm of the figure to rest upon, and some counters. Two lesser doors, and a green cloth screen, contrived in the body of the figure, and in its lower parts are likewise opened, and the Turkish robe which covers them is raised; so that the construction both of the figure and chest internally is displayed. ln this state the Automaton is moved round for the examination of the spectators; and to banish all suspicion from the most sceptical mind, that any living subject is concealed within any part of it, the exhibitor introduces a lighted candle into the body of the chest and figure, by which the interior of each is, in a great measure, rendered transparent, and the most secret comer is shown. Here it may be observed, that the same precaution to remove suspicion is used, if requested, at the close as at the commencement of a game of Chess, with the Automaton.

The chest is divided, by a partition, into two unequal chambers. That to the right of the figure is the narrowest, and occupies scarcely one third of the body of the chest. It is filled with little wheels, levers, cylinders, and other machinery used in clock-work. That to the left contains a few wheels, some small barrels with springs, and two quarters of a circle placed horizontally. The body and lower parts of the figure contain certain tubes which seem to be conductors to the machinery. After a sufficient time, during which each spectator may satisfy his scruples and his curiosity, the exhibiter recloses the doors of the chest and figure, and the drawer at bottom; makes some arrangements in the body of the figure, winds up the works with a key inserted into a small opening on the side of the chest, places a cushion under the left arm of the figure, which now rests upon it, and invites any individual present, to play a game of Chess.

At one and three o’clock in the afternoon, the Automaton plays only ends of games, with any person who may be present. On these occasions the pieces are placed on the board, according to a preconcerted arrangement; and the Automaton invariably wins the game. But at eight o’clock every evening, it plays an entire game against any antagonist who may offer himself, and generally is the winner, although the inventor had not this issue in view as a necessary event.

In playing a game, the Automaton makes choice of the white pieces, and always has the first move. These are small advantages towards winning the game which are cheerfully conceded. It plays with the left hand, the right arm and hand being constantly extended on the chest, behind which it is seated. This slight incongruity proceeded from absence of mind in the inventor, who did not perceive his mistake till the machinery of the Automaton was too far completed to admit of the mistake being rectified. At the commencement of a game, the Automaton moves its head, as if taking a view of the board; the same motion occurs at the close of a game. In making a move, it slowly raises its left arm from the cushion placed under it, and directs it towards the square of the piece to be moved. Its hand and fingers open on touching the piece, which it takes up, and conveys to any proposed square. The arm, then, returns with a natural motion to the cushion upon which it usually rests. In taking a piece, the Automaton makes the same motions of the arm and hand to lay hold of the piece, which it conveys from the board; and then returning to its own piece, it takes it up, and places it on the vacant square. These motions are performed with perfect correctness; and the dexterity with which the arm acts, especially in the delicate operation of castling, seems to be the result of spontaneous feeling, bending at the shoulders elbow, and knuckles, and cautiously avoiding to touch any other piece than that which is to be moved, nor ever making a false move.

After a move made by its antagonist, the Automaton remains for a few moments only inactive, as if meditating its next move; upon which the motion of the left arm and hand follow. On giving check to the King, it moves its head as a signal. When a false move is made by its antagonist, which frequently occurs, through curiosity to observe in what manner the Automaton will act: as, for instance, if a Knight be made to move like a Castle, the Automaton taps impatiently on the chest, with its right hand, replaces the Knight on its former square, and not permitting its antagonist to recover his move, proceeds immediately to move one of its own pieces: thus appearing to punish him for his inattention. The little advantage in play which is hereby gained, makes the Automaton more a match for its antagonist, and seems to have been contemplated by the inventor as an additional resource towards winning the game.

It is of importance that the person matched against the Automaton, should be attentive, in moving a piece, to place it precisely in the centre of its square; otherwise the figure, in attempting to lay hold of the piece, may miss its hold, or even sustain some injury in the delicate mechanism of the fingers. When the person has made a move, no alteration in it can take place: and if a piece be touched, it must be played somewhere. This rule is strictly observed by the Automaton. If its antagonist hesitates to move for a considerable time, it taps smartly on the top of the chest with the right hand, which is constantly extended upon it, as if testifying impatience at his delay. During the time that the Automaton is in motion, a low sound of clock-work running down is heard, which ceases soon after its arm returns to the cushion; and then its antagonist may make his move. The works are wound up at intervals, after ten or twelve moves, by the exhibiter, who is usually employed in walking up and down the apartment in which the Automation is shown, approaching, however, the chest from time to time, especially on its right side.

At the conclusion of the exhibition of the Automaton, on the removal of the chess men from the board, one of the spectators indiscriminately is requested to place a Knight upon any square of the board at pleasure. The Automaton immediately takes up the Knight, and beginning from that square, it moves the piece, according to its proper motion, so as to touch each of the sixty-three squares of the chess board in turn, without missing one, or returning to the same square. The square from which the Knight proceeds is marked by a white counter; and the squares successively touched, by red counters, which at length occupy all the other squares of the board.

The description now given of the Automaton Chess Player, with respect to its construction, so far as that can be explained, and its general manner of working, naturally suggests an interesting inquiry: What are the immediate causes by which its unparalleled phenomena are produced?

To this inquiry no satisfactory answer has yet been made.

Although it was a remarkable invention, the Turk was not in fact a robot. It was actually an elaborate puppet, operated by a puppeteer concealed within the cabinet, a remarkably sophisticated invention nonetheless. Its secret remained unknown although suspected by some, until the Cambridge professor Rev. Robert Willis published a detailed explanation of the hoax in 1821. After Mälzel’s death the Turk changed hands a few times, eventually ending up in the Chinese Museum of Charles Wilson Peale, where is was destroyed by fire in 1854. A reconstruction of the Turk was built in the 1980s. The Turk inspired the Doctor Who audio adventure from Big finish “The Silver Turk”, in which the Doctor encounters a mechanical Turk who turns out to be a Cyberman!

The knight moving to every square on the board once is known as the “knight’s tour”.  To achieve the solution the player moves the knight each time to the square that avails the fewest possible moves from that point onwards, excluding squares that have already been occupied, with further rules for breaking ties.  Although the problem of the knight’s tour dates back many centuries, the solution was not explored in detail until 1823, so it is likely the Turk operator had simply learnt a sequence by heart.

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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