- Historic Sites
The bizarre career of “The Turk,” an ingenious mechanical chess player that defeated Frederick the Great, George III, and Napoleon (whom it caught cheating) and nearly fooled all America
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
On April 13, 1826, a strange-looking contrivance was wheeled into the assembly rooms of the brand-new National Hotel at 112 Broadway in New York City. It consisted ol the lifelike wooden figure of a turhancd Turk, seated before a table-high maple chest three and a half feet long by two feet deep. The figure’s right arm rested lightly beside a chessboard eighteen inches square permanently affixed to the top of the chest, and his left hand held a long-stemmed clay pipe.
The contrivance was a mechanical chess player, which, its promoter announced, woidd meet—and beat—anyone who wished to challenge it. Two enthusiastic amateurs took the challenge, and in turn the Turk soundly trounced them, triumphantly crying “Échec!” (“Check!”) while doing so. Twice a day thereafter, at noon and at 8 P.M. , the left-handed automaton repeated his performance, vanquishing every opponent who volunteered. Adult spectators packed the house and paid fifty cents—children under twelve paid twentyfive cents, but got part of it back in candy—for the privilege of watching a machine outthink a man.
At the receiving end of the cash and the distributing end of the candy was the genial and genteel exhibitor, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, a German-born impresario, musician, and inventor of musical mechanisms, and the pirate of the instrument marketed today as the Metronome de Mälzel. The Turk and Maelzel had arrived in New York in February from Paris, a few packet boats ahead of the sheriff, along with the rest of Maelzel’s variety show of automatons, a life-sized French dragoon trumpeter, and a pair of twenty-inch wooden mannequins who danced and tumbled on a thirty-loot slack rope to Maelzel’s piano accompaniment.
Newspaper coverage was detailed and full of admiration. The Evening Post gave the show more than a column of choice space, concluding that “Nothing of a similar nature has ever been seen in this city that will bear the smallest comparison with it.” The Commercial Advertiser matched the Post hosanna for hosanna. The papers were so lull of the Turk that one of them felt compelled to apologize; its excuse was that “persons at a distance can form no idea of how much the attention ol our citizens is occupied by it.” Peale’s Museum at 258 Broadway was close enough to form an idea, however, and by May 7 it was attempting to lure some of the overflow crowd with a collection of “mechanical paradoxes and curiosities made in Philadelphia in imitation of those by Mr. Maelzel.”
But even at half the price, Peale’s imitation couldn’t hold it candle to the proceedings at the National, where Maclzel himself—a stout, florid, lively, and urbane man of fifty-lour—introduced the original cast, beginning with its gray-eyed intellectual star. The Turk was rolled into the hall on casters, and Macl/el moved it around the room to give all the spectators a clear view. Then, to prove that no one was hidden inside the chest, he systematically opened each of its three doors, as well as the long narrow drawer beneath.
The inspection, aided by a candle, revealed a crowded display of superbly finished levers, wheels, pinions, and gears on the left side; a cushion and a set of chessmen in the long drawer; and two pieces of quadrant-shaped brass in the cloth-lined main compartment, which lay behind the double doors at right.
With doors flapping, Maelzel swung the Turk around, raised his drapery, and exposed tsvo more tiny doors, one in the figure’s lower back and the other in its left thigh, both filled with machinery. He now asked for a volunteer to play a game of chess with what had just been clearly demonstrated to be a pure machine. A small table was set up for the brave opponent twelve feet from the Turk’s board on the audience side of the silk-cord barrier, and when the volunteer was seated facing the automaton, Maelzcl took away the Turk’s pipe and gave him a cushion to support his left elbow. Then he closed the doors, the drawer, and the peepholes, wound up the automaton with a key in its left side and rolled the Turk into playing position while the machinery clanked and whirred up a racket. The Turk moved first, a privilege he always took, and Maelzel made the same move on the opponent’s board. For the rest of the game he shuttled between the two boards, acting as messenger lor both sides.
Contests like those that now ensued had been baffling Europeans for over half a century, ever since 1769, when the mustachioed Turk had been built by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen as a conversation piece for the parties of his empress, Maria Theresa, in Vienna. Von Kempelen took it on a glittering tour, in the course of which the Turk defeated Frederick the Great and George III and played the distinguished American ambassador to Paris, Benjamin Franklin. The German-born Maelzel, who had built his reputation on unusual music machines of all shapes and sixes, acquired the automaton from von Kempelen’s son in 1805. Shortly thereafter he lost it again, under bizarre circumstances.