Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


HOW DO WE think? In these days of artificial intelligence, not to say unexpected political outcomes, this question is a non-trivial one. A new book on this, and more, is discussed in the London Review of Books, December 1, 2016.

Steven Shapin’s LRB review, “More than Machines,” of Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock mentions mathematicians of note, Rene Descartes and Gottfried Wilheim Leibnitz; Benjamin Franklin; Edgar Allan Poe; and The Turk. It is with this last one that I find special resonance today.

Riskin’s book starts with “medieval ideas about machines and animals; it goes on to discuss the mechanical philosophies of the Scientific Revolution; the automata crazes of the Enlightenment; the tensions of 18th and 19th century life science over design… and it finishes with discussions of cybernetics, robots and artificial intelligence.”

Quite a sweep, and what caught my eye was the mention of automata, mechanical devices that moved with human-like actions. Notes reviewer Shapin, “The Catholic Church was the main patron of the ‘great bustling population’ of automata that ‘thronged the landscape of late medieval and early modern Europe.’ ”

Author Riskin cites mechanical Christs on the cross, bowing, shaking and rolling their eyes in agony; the crowing mechanical rooster on top of the great clock of the Three Kings in Strasbourg Cathedral; angelic automata carrying saintly souls to their reward; and a mechanical Assumption of the Virgin–Mary blissfully hoisted up to heaven by an “endless screw.” Clever Archimedean engineering there.


An Archimedean screw, used to raise water, third century B.C., among other tasks.

French mathematician René Descartes, 1596–1650, is honored today in Cartesian coordinates, the xy plane and xyz three-dimensional graphical systems. Riskin writes that Descartes was especially impressed by automata of complex hydraulics, “a single motive power–the flow of water,” which could give life-like “agency” to a machine.

By contrast, German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, 1646–1716, co-discoverer of calculus, framed his philosophical musings of thought and perception in terms of clockwork. Shapin observes that the Leibnitz clock “wasn’t merely an inanimate metaphor for animate things but was itself animate.” Said another way, “machines were more than machines.”

And so it was with The Turk, a chess-playing automaton constructed in 1770. Wolfgang von Kempelen, 1734–1804, was a Hungarian author and inventor, fluent in German, Latin, French, Italian, his native Hungarian and, eventually English and Romanian. He was also something of a con man.

Von Kempelen first exhibited The Turk to Empress Maria Theresa of Austria at her Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. The Turk had a life-size head and torso, was dressed in Turkish robes and turban, and sat at an oversize cabinet with a chessboard atop it.


A 1980s replica of The Turk. Photo by Carafe at English Wikipedia.

The cabinet’s front had three doors, behind which were complex assemblies of gears, cogs, levers and whatnot. With any one of the front doors open, another door at the rear permitted seeing through the machine. The Turk’s robes could be adjusted to reveal other clockwork machinery.

In playing chess, The Turk would nod twice when threatening his opponent’s Queen and three times when putting the opponent’s King into check. If the opponent made an illegal move, The Turk would shake his head and move the errant piece back. In time, he acquired an ability to utter ”échec!” French for “check.”


Etching of The Turk by Karl Gottlieb von Windisch, 1783.

Von Kempelen toured Europe with The Turk in the 1780s, though he claimed to have other projects he found more interesting. The Turk demonstrated considerable prowess at chess, usually winning against even skilled opponents. His final game in Paris was against Benjamin Franklin, U.S. ambassador to France at the time, who took an interest in the machine. Eventually, The Turk returned to Schönbrunn Palace, where he resided until von Kempelen’s death in 1804.

Von Kempelin’s son sold The Turk to Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, a Bavarian musician with an interest in automata. Mälzel refurbished The Turk and hosted a game with Napoleon I at Schönbrunn Palace in 1809. There are contradictory stories about the match. One, for example, suggests that Napoleon attempted an illegal move more than once, and The Turk responded by knocking all the pieces off the board with a sweep of his arm. Napoleon was said to have been amused.


The Turk’s London exhibition, early 19th century.

The Turk and Mälzel visited Milan, Munich, Paris and London, followed by a tour of the U.K. In 1826, they played the U.S., with visits to New York, Boston (which allegedly had better opponents…), Philadelphia, Baltimore and other venues west. In Richmond, Virginia, Edgar Allan Poe’s interest in The Turk led to an essay, Maezel’s Chess Player.

Mälzel’s last tour was to Havana, Cuba. He died at sea on his return to Europe in 1838. The Turk was left with the ship captain and passed subsequently through the hands of other entrepreneurs. The Turk’s last words, a repeated ”echec! echec!” occurred when a fire destroyed a Baltimore museum, his residence in 1854.

This tale sounds wonderfully poignant until you realize that The Turk was a con, with a human chess player artfully lodged within during the matches. What’s more, throughout The Turk’s career, plenty of people, including Ben Franklin and Edgar Allan Poe, suspected the ruse.

Can this be today’s teachable moment? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016

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