- 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.
In 1809, Napoleon seized Castle Schönbrunn, where Maelzel, as chief “mechanician” to the court, was staying, as his headquarters for the Battle of Wagram. According to one account, the Turk conquered the conqueror in their first game, but during the revanche Napoleon decided to see how the automaton acted under stress. He made a false move, a provocation the Turk acknowledged by rapping the table, shaking his head, and replacing the piece. Napoleon made the same move a second time, with the same result. The third time, the Turk lashed out and swept all his opponent’s chessmen to the floor. Napoleon murmured, “ C’est juste ,” and went on to lose by the rules.
Eugène de Beauharnais, the emperor’s stepson, insisted on purchasing the Turk from its proprietor for thirty thousand francs, and Maelzel accepted. He had to wait until 1817 before he could buy it back again—on convenient credit terms that allowed him to stretch out the payments for several years. He found it hard to meet even these generous terms, however, and when in 1825 the executors of the Beauharnais estate sent process servers after him, he hastily gathered the Turk and the rest of his company together and took ship for New York, just one jump ahead of the law. With a new set of clothes, a rakish feather in his turban, a little oil in the machinery, and a voice I)Ox in his innards, the Turk was ready to take on alf comers in the New World.
What the challengers didn’t know was that the clatter of the Turk’s internal contrivances was merely a blind. When Mael/el started the machinery the automaton’s genie, an attractive and nimble Frenchwoman ingeniously concealed behind the machinery in the chest throughout the examination, slid into the main compartment on a tiny stool mounted on rails. There she lighted a candle and prepared for the game by setting up a portable chessboard and arranging the pantograph equipment that moved the Turk’s arms. The chest was the perfect counterpart of a magician’s trick-table; it could accommodate even a tall person with reasonable comfort once the doors were closed. During the public viewing, however, the lady raced through a complicated set of calisthenics to escape detection—gliding through sliding partitions on casters, even shifting the machinery, all of which was movable. The construction of the chest virtually guaranteed invisibility, in case of a sudden hitch in the routine, a set of prearranged signals told Maelzel to stop before any embarrassing disclosures could be made.
Maelzel’s first choice for the New York debut had been an Alsatian chess tramp named William Schlumberger, whom he had met in Paris. There the Alsatian played day and night at the Café de la Régence, the smoky, crowded, mirror-lined mccca of chess players on the Rue St. Honoré, and earned a few francs for board and lodging by teaching the game. Schlumberger agreed to join the Turk in New York as soon as Maelzel could afford to send over the money for passage. Meanwhile, the Frenchwoman, whose chess wouldn’t have qualified her as a bus boy at the Café de la Régence, embarked with the com pany at Le Havre on the packet ship Howard on December 20, 1825: and during the month and-a-half voyage to New York and the two-and a-hall-month delay before the show opened, she was tutored by Maelzel on how to play chess in a box.
From her vantage point in the main compartment of the chest she had a view of the underside of the Turk’s chessboard. The squares were numbered beneath from 1 to 64, with a lever and a metal disc attached to the bottom of each square. The Turk’s chessmen were magnetized, and when a piece was moved 1'roni a square on the surface, the disc under it descended on its lever. The operator waited for a disc to rise under another square and then duplicated her opponent’s move on a second, scale-model chessboard at which she played. This board had pegged chessmen; in addition, each of its sixty-four squares had a hole. When it was the Turk’s move, she lifted from a holder at the side of her board the end of a metal rod that extended through the figure’s left arm to his gloved hand, and the Turk’s arm simultaneously left the cushion. When the point of the rod was inserted into one of the sixty-four holes of the operator’s board, the Turk’s hand hovered over the corresponding piece on his board above. A twist of the rod to the left dosed his fingers around it, and the Turk’s man swung to the new position. A twist of the rod to the right made the fingers release the piece in the correct square. The operator then guided the Turk’s arm to its resting position. Other mechanisms controlled the right hand (which rapped on the table when the opponent made a mistake), the head-shaking, the eyerollinsi, and the voice boomini> “ Échec! ”
Every clay during Madame’s three-month stewardship of the Turk in New York, Maelzel rolled his combatant into battle with misgivings about the outcome of the contest and scanned the horizon nervously for some sign of Schlimibergcr, whose passage money was sent as soon as lhe show was established as a longterm attraction. The exhibitor’s lack ol confidence in his machine’s ability was quite obvious. One editor lound it newsworthy enough to devote space to it. “Whoever will watch [Maelzel’s] face closely while the game is going on,” he wrote, “cannot but observe the anxious workings of his miiitl and the relief lie experiences when the figure says ‘Échec!,’ especially when the player seems to be almost a match lor the automaton.” While Maelzel regarded la Française as merely the least reliable part of the inner workings of the Turk, there were a good many people in New York who took notice of her before and after games too. They took so much notice of her, in fact, that they missed her during the games and began to suggest that she might be the brains behind the Turk, a troublesome notion that Maelzel thought he cotdd combat only with complete candor. He walked over to the office of the Evening Post at 49 William Street, and presented its editor, William Coleman, with the scoop of the year on a silver platter. Maelzel explained the workings of the Turk, identified the operator, and confided that he was in a spot. Coleman, an ardent chess player, realized the effect that the Turk’s appearance was having on the popularization of chess by increasing the sale of chess books and chess sets, and was very gratified by it. With a gesture that establishes him as one of the most discreet reporters in the history of American journalism, Coleman not only suppressed the story but loaned Maelzel his own son to train as relief operator of the Turk. When the younger Coleman was ready for public performance, Maelzel stuffed him into the chest, and la Française sat demurely at the opponent’s board several evenings in a row, for everybody to see.
If by some chance Maelzel had chosen the editor of the Commercial Advertiser , Colonel William Leete Stone, as his confidante, he might have had to close up shop. Colonel Stone served his readers by following up every clue that might lead to the unveiling of the chess player’s mystery.
When Stone dug back into the old von Kempelen days and discovered that the baron used to peek into a square box during the course of a game and claim that the box held the automaton’s secret, Maelzel explained why he had discarded this simple deception. His words were calculated to warm the hearts and loosen the purse strings of 120,000 New Yorkers. “The people,” Maelzel said, “are now intelligent; then they were superstitious.” A writer to the National Advocate guessed that Maelzel controlled the Turk’s moves by touching springs when he drummed his fingers on the chest. Colonel Stone dutifully stopped by the National again and reported that this was impossible because Maelzel (who had read the letter too) stayed fifteen to twenty feet away from the automaton while it contemplated its moves.
Though the Frenchwoman proved herself an apt pupil, she was no chess prodigy and had not become a player de la première force in four months of preperformance practice. Therefore, to avoid a disastrous losing streak that would tarnish the Turk’s reputation and earning power, Maelzel advertised that the automaton would play only “end games,” the critical final moves leading to check and mate of the king, piously explaining that “whole games occupy too much time, and fatigue the attention of those who do not understand the game.” In finer print he added a footnote stating that the Turk was available privately for full games with interested amateurs “on application to Mr. Maelzel.”
This maneuver allowed Maelzel to limit the risk greatly, because the only end games offered to opponents were plotted out within the covers of a small green morocco-bound book compiled with the help of one of the Turk’s illustrious former tenants, a London chessmaster named William Lewis. There were several hundred situations listed, all of which had one characteristic in common: they were set up so that the player making the first move would almost invariably win the game, and the Turk always moved first.
But the footnote to his ad almost tripped Maelzel. A persistent challenger named Greco showed up at the National at least once a week to apply for a complete game, and when he couldn’t make it personally sent a couple of chess-playing friends over to torment Maelzel. Expecting a good stiff wind to blow Schlumberger into New York any day, Maelzel stalled them with a list of excuses such as broken machinery, missing parts, and emergency appointments. Greco kept up his assault until Maelzel closed the show in New York and moved to Boston, still without Schlumberger. Greco limited his complaints about misleading advertising to his circle of friends until, by a series of circumstances, it involved his civic and national pride.
The Turk and company opened in Boston at Julien Hall, at the corner of Milk and Congress streets, on September 13, and the star of the show promptly blew the game, an event reported in the Boston Centinel as clear evidence of the superiority of Boston over New York. “We add as an extraordinary fact,” the Centinel gloated, “that on Monday the grave and skillful Chess Player found a conqueror in a Bostonian, in one of his most favorite end of games and was compelled to succumb, we believe for the first time since his arrival in America, any reports from the Commercial Emporium to the contrary notwithstanding.” The New-York American , upholding the honor of the “commercial emporium,” ran the dispatch in full but corrected the record by pointing out that the Turk had been beaten in New York in two end games by two men separately. “The truth,” countered the Centinel , “is that the automaton has been conquered in Boston by three gentlemen separately.” Greco, still smoldering in New York, exploded at this exchange. In a letter to the American , he wrote: I am sorry to perceive any discussion in the newspapers about either the victory or defeat of the automaton in any mere end of a game of chess. The ends of games played by the machine are all taken from various authors on the game, and the moves are of the most subtle construction. Few players, even of the highest order, are able to seize die solution of these different situations on viewing them set up for the first time. On the other hand, the individual who governs the automaton’s board, being fully possessed, by constant practice and experience, of every possible move which can occur, engages in contest with charmed strength and unfair advantage unless the opponent happened to have seen and studied the situation. The only fair test of skill would be full games. During the time the automaton was in this city I called on Mr. Maelzel often, as did at least two other men, and tried to get permission to play full games. But, although, Mr. Maelzel had advertised amateurs might have this privilege, he always evaded the application and it was impossible to encounter his “wooden warrior” in a complete game. Believing as I do, however erroneously, that at least two people in New York can play with a degree of skill inferior to no champion whatever, either American or European, I wish to challenge the automaton chess player to play a match of three full games on its return to the city. The match to be contested for love or money, as Mr. Maelzel pleases. If he accepts this defiance, the American public will be able to ascertain whether our countrymen are equal or not to foreigners in any specified particular—even a knowledge of the game of chess. Should this “card” be declined, let us hear no more of its vaunted superiority to the world as a chess player, but content ourselves with admiring it as a most admirable instance of mechanical ingenuity.
Maelzel (backed by the information that Schlumberger was heading north from New York) made a businesslike response to this nationalistic attack on the Turk: he promised a week of full games in Boston. He also doubled the admission price to one dollar. Schlumberger showed up in the nick of time, took a room at Mrs. Vose’s boardinghouse next door to the hall, and climbed into the Turk’s chest to report for work.
With a firm hand at the pantograph, Maelzel’s confidence soared. At one performance, after a week of solid victories in full games and with no more volunteers in sight, Maelzel cajoled a young doctor to try his hand. His name was Benjamin D. Greene, and as behooves a good medical man, he proved that human machinery was superior to the Turk’s by saying “ Échec! ” first. For years afterward, Greene’s reputation as the man who had beaten the automaton overshadowed his considerable success as a doctor.
After closing in Boston, Maelzel got around to his unfinished business with Greco. He announced publicly in Manhattan that he was accepting the “card” backed to the extent of five thousand dollars by a group of civic-minded Bostonians who felt that their chess prowess had been belittled. Greco’s two friends called on Maelzel for the challenge matches, but when they arrived he suggested that inasmuch as the Turk was still crated after the Boston stand, perhaps they would be satisfied to play a member of his entourage, Mr. Schlumberger. They consented, and both were beaten. Greco, apparently convinced that the Turk was at least as good as Schlumberger, withdrew his challenge and sent a chastened letter to the New-York American: … Since my former communication I am sorry to state that both the American chess players on whose skill I relied so arrogantly have been beaten with ease by a foreigner. I must therefore back out from my challenge, as better men have done before me and subscribe to the automaton’s superiority without a trial.
Your very obed’t servant.
Schlumberger—according to Greco’s seedings—was now the unofficial if anonymous chess champion of New York. But after the honeymoon interval at Boston, his duties began to multiply. On tour, besides playing chess, he had to pack and unpack the Turk in five crates, manipulate the ropedancers (after la Française and her husband—the regular handler of the ropedancers—struck out for themselves), sell tickets, and attend to a number of outside details for Maelzel. For all this Schlumberger received only fifty dollars a month plus his traveling expenses.
Schlumberger was fluent in English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish, but showed animation in any language only when the subject turned to chess. He was slovenly in appearance and shy, but his ability as a player brought him frequent dinner invitations from the serious American chess contenders. Maelzel encouraged these social engagements and even managed to use them as businesss calls. One of Schlumberger’s public-relations functions was to visit two or three of the leading players in a city and flatteringly ask them not to challenge the Turk because Maelzel feared that the automaton might lose. In return for this favor, Schlumberger would be available for private matches at their convenience. The effect, aside from keeping the Turk’s chances of winning at ninetynine per cent, was to build a corps of influential supporters for the enterprise.
When neither Maelzel nor Schlumberger had outside appointments, they took their meals together at a special table in the exhibition hall, a bottle of wine and a portable chessboard constantly between them. They ate, drank, and played without a word, with Schlumberger invariably tipsy and victorious. After dinner, Maelzel watched his fuzzy assistant disappear into the chest and carefully looked for signs of sleepiness in the Turk’s game, drumming his fingers rapidly at the side of the chessboard to keep Schlumberger alert. On such occasions, when Maelzel thought the Turk was in danger of losing, he circled the chest several times, pretending to listen carefully to the operating machinery. Pinpointing a “flaw,” he explained that the automaton was out of order, apologized to the audience, quickly shoved the Turk out of sight, and sent the always-sober French dragoon trumpeter into the breach.
Even though he was occasionally beaten, the Turk always sprang back in the popular mind as an invincible mechanism. When Charles Vezin, one of Philadelphia’s best players, bested the Turk, he got short shrift from a friend who had accompanied him to the hall. Vezin won, the friend said, only because he took so confoundedly long with his moves that even an automaton would lose interest.
The inner workings of the Turk remained a mystery to the general public until 1827, when, during an engagement in Baltimore, two boys learned the secret by the simple method of direct observation. One May day they climbed to the roof of a shed behind the exhibition hall and watched the lanky, stoop-shouldered Schlumberger rise, sweating, from the top of the cabinet after a performance. Maelzel’s reaction to the story—headlined “The Chess-player Discovered” in the Baltimore Gazette —was an immediate and voluble denial. But despite record crowds drawn by the publicity, Maelzel felt the Turk needed time to recover from the shock of having been seen déshabillé . He closed the show on June 2 and when he reopened in the fall offered his spectacular diorama, “The Conflagration of Moscow,” right off the boat from Paris, as the feature attraction. The Turk was shunted into semiretirement.
Just at this low point in his career, the Turk suffered another blow—the sudden rise of a formidable competitor. For the benefit of a Baltimore man, Maelzel had compared the reactions of the Turk’s audiences here to those in other countries: The Germans wondered and said nothing [he had said]. In France, they exclaimed “Magnifiquel” “Merveilleux!” “Superbe!” The English set themselves to prove—one, that it could be, and another, that it could not be, a mere mechanism acting without a man inside. But I had not been long in your country before a Yankee came to me and said, “Mr. Maelzel, would you like another thing like that? I can make you one for $500.” I laughed at his proposition. Then he came to me again, and this time he said, “Mr. Maelzel, would you like to buy another thing like that? I have one ready made for you.”
Maelzel turned down the offer of the new automaton, the brainchild of a pair of brothers named Walker, but he should have listened to them, for the Walkers proceeded to get the backing of a promoter named John Scudder and started the career of their “American Chess Player” on April 22, 1827—appropriately enough at the American Museum in New York.
Maelzel was in Baltimore licking his wounds from the discovery of the Turk’s secret by the two boys on the roof when news of the New York crisis reached him. The newspapers reported that the Walkers’ automaton was just as clever as the Turk but not as strong a chess player. Maelzel wrote to Coleman for an unbiased estimate of the competition and, when the editor replied that the Yank was indeed better, hurried to New York. Maelzel took in a performance with Coleman and afterward told the Walkers with magnanimity that they had a good automaton, but quite different from the Turk. After the softeningup process, Maelzel got around to offering the Walkers one thousand dollars to junk the American and join his own payroll as cashiers. The offer was refused and Maelzel ran an ad in the Evening Post on May 9 warning the public that the chess player now performing in New York was not his chess player, the one, the only, the true von Kempelen masterpiece. In truth, the American Chess Player lacked tradition and an imaginative showman like Maelzel: it was advertised for sale on May 27.
In another case of budding opposition, Maelzel diverted the inventor midway through his project and glibly persuaded him to convert it into the American Whist Player, a device with almost no box-office appeal that played for several months at the National Hotel and later became a useless adjunct to the Turk’s supporting cast. The Turk’s influence could also be felt in a circus act called the Turkish Female Automaton Juggler, and in 1831, while Maelzel and his troupe were in Philadelphia, an ambitious New York producer mounted a farce called The Automaton Chess Player starring “Gambit” and “Captain Check.”
The Turk’s circuit remained New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore until 1834, when Maelzel ventured into Richmond and Charleston. Edgar Allan Poe was a frequent, fascinated spectator during the Richmond stand in 1836. With characteristic attention to detail, he published a step-by-step deductive analysis of the Turk’s operation in the Southern Literary Messenger , in which he logically destroyed any possibility that the Turk could be a pure machine, a notion still held by many otherwise sensible people. Poe based his deduction on seventeen separate observations, beginning with the Turk’s unmachinelike behavior in making its moves not at regular intervals of time but in response to the moves of its opponent. By the sixteenth point, Poe’s ratiocination had reduced poor Maelzel to a competent sleight-of-hand artist, and Schlumberger was pinpointed as the man at the Turk’s controls by the cogent observation that the exhibition was canceled while he was ill. The Turk, however, won the seventeenth round. Poe assumed that Schlumberger played from within the Turk’s torso, where he could see the board, and observation No. 17 dwelled on the figure’s left-handedness as a device to allow the operator to cross his right hand comfortably over his chest to control machinery supposedly concealed in the Turk’s left shoulder. The Turk kept the secret of the pantograph.
But while Poe was deducing in Richmond, a onelegged Frenchman named Mouret, one of Schlumberger’s predecessors, was spilling the beans in Paris, selling the full details of the chess player’s innards for an article in the popular magazine Pittoresque . The article made no great sensation in the United States until it was republished in the authoritative Paris chess periodical, Palamède , and picked up by the American papers. The Turk’s magic diminished sharply at the box office and Maelzel set out for the hinterlands, overland to Pittsburgh and by river boat to Cincinnati, New Orleans, and points southeast.
The show was a hit in Havana, but a stateside visit to Philadelphia and New York was financially disastrous. With money borrowed from John F. Ohl, a Pennsylvania shipowner, Maelzel returned to Havana in 1837 hoping to recoup from the holiday crowds expected between Christmas and the beginning of Lent.
The plans fell apart. Maelzel and company arrived too late to take full advantage of the anticipated crowds, and Schlumberger, by now as close to Maelzel as a son, contracted yellow fever and died. Another assistant was hired but soon deserted, and Maelzel, broken in spirit as well as pocket, borrowed money from Ohl’s Havana correspondent and sailed for Philadelphia on July 14, 1838, on the brig Otis . Seven days later, off Charleston, he was found dead in his berth, a case of claret beside him. He was buried at sea.
At a public auction in Philadelphia on September 14, OhI bid in the Turk at four hundred dollars and sold it, still crated, for the same amount to Dr. John Kearsley Mitchell, a professor at Jefferson College of Medicine, who performed an “autopsy.” Dr. Mitchell formed a club for the automaton, the membership growing to seventy-five enthusiasts who paid dues of five or ten dollars each. The mechanism was shown to the members in the autumn of 1840. Private exhibitions followed in various members’ homes, but the Turk soon lost his novelty and was presented to the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia, where he played chess several times and was then relegated to an upstairs corner. On July 5, 1854, fire broke out in a nearby theater and enveloped the museum. Crews marched in and out of the building for several hours saving the museum’s treasures, but no one remembered the ancient Turk, and he perished by flame at the age of eighty-five.