On this day in 1837 in Philadelphia, a mechanical marvel was revealed to conceal a hidden master.
For decades around the turn of the 19th century, Hungarian Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen toured around Europe with a large, heavy, and amazing contraption which he claimed was a fully-mechanical device capable of playing chess unaided by humans. He charged money for people to watch matches between his alleged machine and various people of the time, including Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin. The machine usually won. The device consisted of a large box with sliding panels, inside which could be seen a collection of brass gears and drums. The sliding panels were moved about before each match to show that there was nothing inside but mechanical works.
Few people actually believed that Kempelen had managed to build a real thinking machine, but they were fascinated nonetheless by trying to figure out how it worked. The “Turk” mannequin was clearly not a real person, although Edgar Allen Poe, fascinated by the device, attempted to explain the hoax by suggesting that someone small enough might fit inside it. Others speculated that there was a chess master hidden elsewhere in the theater who was somehow communicating the moves to a small boy inside the machine who moved the pieces via the animatronic “Turks” arms.
After Kempelen died in 1804, the machine was purchased by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, a German university student, who embarked on a 33-year career of performing chess matches with the device.
Not until 1837 was the secret revealed. The Philadelphia National Gazette Literary Register published an exposé on the device. The sliding panels and interior spaces were constructed in such a way as to allow a chess master to conceal himself inside the main box, and then move from one section of the box to the other when the sliding panels were moved. The chess master (any of a group of people over the years) then moved the arms via control rods within the box; a sort of pantograph device.
Shortly after the hoax was finally explained, Maelzel and his current machine-operator/chess-master (good job if you can get it?) both died and the machine was relegated to the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia, where it perished in a fire in 1854.
Numerous recreations of the machine have been made since, evidence of the enduring fascination with one of the most elaborately-constructed and cunningly-designed hoaxes of modern times.
Most interestingly, the modern term ‘Turking’, used to refer to performing large numbers of very small, mechanical tasks for money comes from the phrase “The Mechanical Turk”, about which you have just read.
Added to the calendar by Kurt Larson, fellow of Odd Salon
“Monster in a Box” – Wired.com
“The Great Chess Automaton” – Museum of Hoaxes