The Turk

Updated: Apr 21

September 1809. Vienna is experiencing hard times after the defeat at Wagram. The Austrian capital and much of the country is occupied by the victorious French army. Napoleon resides in the Schônbrunn Palace, from which Emperor Franz hastily fled.

This very palace witnessed one day the defeat of the conqueror of Europe.

A 1980s Turk reconstruction (1)

Having heard about an extraordinary invention - a chess-playing automaton that could defeat the strongest of chess players - the French emperor expressed his desire to play a game with it. Napoleon's wish was an order; the automaton was brought to the palace, Bonaparte sat down to play, and lost.

The automaton, which caused a great sensation at the time, was built in 1769 by a skilled mechanic, Wolfgang Kempel (who later changed his name to von Kempelen, giving it a more aristocratic sound). The Turk's left hand was movable - with it he moved, with the help of a system of levers, the figures standing on a chessboard on top of the chest. The front part of the chest was glazed over, revealing an interior full of gears, levers, and gears that moved with a loud clatter when the dummy made a move. In the other, larger part of the chest, open for viewing before the séance, but closed during the game, there was a strong chess player directing the movements of the "Turk". This part of the chest during the pre-game inspection was also occupied by various mechanisms, giving the impression that a human being could not fit in there. These mechanisms, however, did not work, but could be easily folded, leaving enough space for the player, who during the public pre-screening inspection hid in the hollows of the dummy and the pedestal which served him as a backrest.

Operating scheme (1)

This trick, primitive in conception, was executed with great skill and the mystery of the "automaton" aroused an understandable sensation for many years, since not once did the audience manage to ascertain the presence of the chess player inside.

What was more interesting was the way in which the chess player was informed what move had been made by his opponent - which, after all, he could not see when locked in the box. This problem was solved in an ingeniously simple way. All the pieces standing on a chessboard on top of the chest were equipped with strong magnets, and under each chessboard field there was a metal ball hanging on a short thread. This ball clung to the top of the board when a piece was above it, and fell down when the board was free. This also allowed the player to control the moves made by the "Turk".

Chess master inside "Turk" (1)

The automaton was first exhibited in Vienna in 1770, and together with its enterprising creator it toured many European cities, creating a sensation everywhere and bringing in substantial profits (H. Murray reports that a ticket for the show of the game in London cost 5 shillings, which was not a trifling sum).

The Turk (1)

After Kempelen's death in 1804 the machine was purchased by L. Maelzel and continued to travel, hosting some of the greatest chess players of the time (including the Austrian master Allgaier, who won the aforementioned game with Napoleon). The level of interest in the mechanism and its ability to keep a secret is evidenced by the fact that after Napoleon's defeat, Prince Eugene Beauharnais paid 30,000 francs for the "automaton"; however, he was unable to discover its secret. In 1817 Maelzel bought it back again and resumed his wanderings with it. In 1826 the automaton found its way to America, where it also ended its career by burning down during a fire in a museum in Philadelphia.

Kempelen's machine did not play with its opponents - the levers of the mechanism were moved by a man hidden inside.

Fourteenth move. Black's move. "Turk" or rather chess master Johann Allgaier needed 10 more moves to give Napoleon Bonaparte a defeat. Will you take up the challenge and find a faster way to checkmate the white king? :-)

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