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Mephisto - Promotional Material

Charles Godfrey Gümpel, like the Turk director William Schlumberger, was from Alsace Lorraine. Using his skill for creating custom-made prostheses, he built the chess-playing automaton, Mephisto, over a 7 year period. From 1879 to 1889, Isodor Gunsberg directed the automaton which he did from a distance using electro/magnetic devices (as opposed to the Turk and Ajeeb who concealed the director within). In 1889, Jean Taubenhaus was the director. It's been said that Mephisto was never mated.

 -Below are some contemporary testimonials and newpaper articles -



The pictures and text from the book:
Exhibited at the International Theatre Exposition Universelle, Paris. 1889
The Marvelous Automaton

C. Godfrey Gümpel 






Editor of "Knowledge" 


THE paper of mine which appeared in a recent number of the Gentleman's Magazine, in which I have instituted a comparison between the famous Automaton Chessplayer, so called, which was made by De Kempelen more than a century ago, and the Mechanical Chess-player now playing excellent chess at has been to some degree misunderstood by some reviewers. In the Times notice of my paper especially, the remark is made that I profess to explain the way in which both these figures are worked. The Echo reviewer more accurately points out in his very kindly criticism that I leave the mystery of Mephisto's play very much where I found it, and have said no more than anyone who had played half-a dozen times with Mephisto could readily ascertain for himself. To say the truth, I had no intention of expounding Mephisto's mystery, while as regards De Kempelen's so-called automaton, there remains no mystery at all, seeing that a full and complete account of the manner in which the figure was worked was long since published by persons who had paid rather heavily for the right, and was also given by at least one of the players who had conducted the " automaton's " chess. What I purposed was chiefly to call attention to a very ingenious mechanical figure now exhibiting, a figure deserving far more attention than De Kempelen's received, whereas in reality it has received far less. What I particularly admire about Mephisto, or rather about the exhibition of this mechanical player, is its perfect honesty. We are not told any nonsensical untruths about the figure, as were those who visited De Kempelen's "automaton'1 in 1769. Not only were they left to infer that the figure was really an automaton, which, of course, was not the case, but De Kempelen placed a casket on a little table near the "automaton " during the play, and assured his visitors that without it the figure could not play. Then there was a winding-up of machinery, and throughout the play a slow sound of wheels and clockwork was heard, though in reality the machinery exhibited to the admiring eyes of the general public, the ratchet wheel wound up, and the mechanism which produced the <: slow sound" (whatever that may mean), had nothing whatever to do with the figure's chess-play; and though I would be loth to say aught which could injure a chess automaton exhibiting at the present time, and, indeed, hold that the value of one such mechanical figure need not necessarily cause us to overlook the interesting qualities of another, yet it is only just to point out that, in the case of Ajeeb, the so-called chess automaton at the Aquarium, reliance is not placed, as it fairly might be, on the cleverness with which a human figure is concealed within the body of the rather stalwart Turk, who is prepared to meet all comers at sixpence a game—the same price, by the way, which is charged for play with the lean and sardonic, but withal pleasant, prince of darkness, Mephisto. The interior of Ajeeb is displayed, and wheels are seen, which have, I venture to assert, very little to do with the working of the Turk's arm and hand. Before every game a process of winding-up is performed which might, unless I greatly deceive myself, be dispensed with, without in-the slightest degree impairing the figure's performance. But this is not altogether the worst. Formerly, I believe, visitors were simply " left to form their own conclusions." Now, in the printed placards announcing the exhibition, the statement is definitely made that no child or diminutive human figure is concealed within the so-called automaton. Now this statement is in one sense perfectly true, No child is concealed, for the concealed player has passed the years of childhood long since. Nor is a diminutive human figure concealed, for the concealed player is not diminutive. A similar statement might as truly have been made about De Kem- pelen's automaton, which was certainly worked at one time by a chess player rejoicing in six feet of vertical linear measurement. The real fact is, that there is nothing in the construction of Ajeeb, or in the arrangements for displaying what the exhibitor chooses to call the whole of the interior, to prevent a tolerably tall man from taking charge of the figure's play. It need hardly be said, however, that the interior of Ajeeb cannot possibly be displayed while the figure is playing; though I have been told that the head has been removed at such times, and with no worse consequences than that Ajeeb is unable to indicate check by nodding twice, or mate by nodding thrice—for it would be too much to expect, even of so mysterious a being, that he should be able to nod without having a head to nod with.

But in the case of Mephisto, though we have a puzzle set us to interpret, or rather, a pretty little scientific problem to solve, we know the exact nature of that puzzle. We are told that there is no concealed player in the figure—no child, no diminutive person, no full-sized Stei . . .—well, let us say, full-sized Staunton or Wormald, since these players, being dead, may be referred to without fear of contradiction or offence; and abundant means are afforded us of convincing ourselves that no player is concealed. In the first place, the figure of Mephisto is far too slight to encourage the idea that a player could be concealed within it, even if the interior were not shown. Then the seat, which usually supplies an important part of the space within which a concealed player disports himself, is in Mephisto's case detached (the Prince of Darkness needs no seat in reality, being, of course, as free from the action of gravity as Satan showed himself when, under Milton's guidance, he wandered about in mid-space between the sun and earth, and hell and heaven— wherever these last may be situate). But this is not all. Mephisto, unlike Ajeeb and De Kempeleris figure, can be examined internally, even while a game is in progress. It matters nothing to him, who received the sword of Marguerite's enraged brother through his body without flinching, that, while an opponent is conducting a fierce (chess) attack against him, Mr. W ... is prodding the most vital parts of his interior with a cane. He conducts his game as energetically as ever under these apparently unpromising conditions. I do not know whether the experiment has ever been tried of pouring snuff into Mephisto's interior, but everyone who has examined Mephisto will feel quite assured that it might be tried without producing those sternutatory effects which are said to have followed such an experiment when tried upon Ajeeb during the course of his recent travels in Germany Again, Mephisto has more than once performed a feat which Ajeeb will certainly not achieve very readily. He has conducted a game when the board has been entirely covered from the view of anyone except Mephisto's opponent.

Of course, in one sense, Mephisto is on the same footing as De Kempelen's figure and Ajeeb, of the Aquarium. All three have been conducted by concealed players. But, whereas everything said or done by the exhibitors of the two other figures, so far as the question of a concealed player was concerned, was intended to deceive, no deception whatever is practised in Mephisto's case. Then the mechanism of Mephisto is altogether superior to that by which the comparatively simple movement of the other players were effected. Those figures were not only not automata; they can hardly be described even as mechanical chess-players. At any rate, so far as Ajeeb is concerned, there can be no manner of doubt that the hand of the figure is directly worked by the hand of the concealed player placed within it. Now, Mephisto's right arm and hand are worked entirely by mechanism, and mechanism so ingeniously devised, that it is a perfect pleasure to watch the working of the arm, in the various movements which are required during the progress of the game. These are more varied than might be imagined by those who have not watched Mephisto's play; and as the board is a full-sized club-board (the men are of the usual Staunton pattern), the movement necessary to remove a man from the further left-hand corner —viewing the board from Mephisto's side—to the right side, where he sets his prisoners, involves a wide sweep of the figure's right arm. But even this is a less remarkable movement than that which he makes when he has occasion to remove one of his own men from that left-hand corner to the left side of the board. This happens when, in rapid exchanging, Mephisto's opponent indicates, by a movement on his own side, that he is going to take the piece with which Mephisto would, in the first place, have effected a capture, if each move were separately made. The instantaneous manner in which Mephisto recognizes that the exchange is to ba made, and, instead of moving his own piece, removes it from the board, is one of the most surprising features of the exhibition. It would not be at all remarkable if the concealed player, as in Ajeeb's case, could see the board and men ; but knowing, as we do, that every move of the opponent's men has to be communicated to a concealed player at some distance below the floor, the rapidity of such movements is very remarkable, and reflects great credit on the ingenuity of M. G . . ., the inventor and constructor of Mephisto.

Lastly, I may remark that those who want to practise chess for its own sake can hardly do better than to visit Mephisto's sanctum (rather a strange name this, by the way, for an apartment tenanted by the Prince of Darkness, though he is a gentleman, according to Shakespeare). He plays, at a much cheaper rate than other strong players, capital chess, which can hardly be said of Ajeeb, though Ajeeb may win as large a proportion of the games he plays. My own experience of the two players may be thus indicated. I think I have never been beaten by Ajeeb except through an oversight of mine (a likely occurrence enough in such rapid play as is required at his table), and I do not think I could win against Mephisto—certainly I never have won—except through an oversight of his.






M, Inst, Civ. Engrs., M. Inst. Mech. Engrs

HAVING witnessed the performances of Mephisto and carefully examined its construction, I am satisfied that this mechanical Chess-player is a veritable automaton, its movements being effected by mechanism, and not by the agency of a player concealed within the figure, for, in the first place, there is no room for a living motor; and, secondly, what room there is, is mostly occupied by mechanism. How knowledge as to the state of the game is conveyed to the intelligent director of the moves (if there be such a being), or how his volition is conveyed to the mechanism of the automaton, I do not pretend to guess. Whatever be the nature of the communication, it is as perfect as it is mysterious, and the results, achieved apparently by the application of physical forces alone, equal, if they do not surpass, those that are usually attributed to the efforts of high intelligence.

Not only as a mystery inscrutably veiled, but also as a mechanism evincing the greatest ingenuity and skill, Mephisto forms an object of interest to the man of science, the chessplayer, and, indeed, to the whole educated public.






The Opinions of the Press
on Mephisto 
The Mechanical Chess Player


Illustrated London News

Chess Intelligence.—On Saturday last the London chess circle was introduced to a player whose singular attributes are likely to make some noise in the world in the course of the next few months. The name of the stranger is " M. Mephisto"—his personal appearance suggests all that his diabolical name implies —and he seems to all intents and purposes to be an automaton chess player. A genuine automaton chess player is of course an impossibility, lor no merely mechanical contrivance can ever be made capable of creating and directing the multiform variations incident to a game of chess, and the inventor of this one, a well- known London amateur, does not pretend that "M. Mephisto" is an automaton pure and simple. He may claim, however, that he has succeeded in completely concealing from the spectator whatever intellectual agency is brought to its assistance. When engaged in play, the figure is seated in a chair at an ordinary table containing a chessboard and pieces, and there is not in any part of the figure or furniture sufficient space to secrete a chess- playing Tom Thumb.

The introduction to " M. Mephisto " was preceded by a dinner at the house of Mr. * * * * the guests including the Rev. Professor Wayte, Dr. Ballard, Messrs. Bird, Blackburne, Potter, Hirschfeldt, Delannoy, Gastineau, and many others. After dinner several games were played, of which one is appended.



Land and Water.

A Chess Seance.—On Saturday last a number of chess celebrities were entertained by Mr. *****, at his residence in * * * * Square. They had been invited to a dinner given in honour of MM. Rosenthal and Camilla Morel, who were to have been in London on that day, with two objects—first, to meet with the strong players of the Metroplis, in order to confer with them respecting the International Chess Congress; secondly, to pay their respects to Monsieur "Mephisto," a distinguished player at present staying with Mr. * * *. Messieurs Rosenthal and Morel did not put in an appearance, and the cause of their absence was disclosed by a telegram sent from Calais, wherein it was stated that they had arrived at that port in order to cross over to England, but in consequence of the gale then raging were not able to do so. A letter from M. Rosenthal to the same effect, despatched by him upon his return to Paris, has since been received. The intelligence contained in the telegram caused much disappointment to the assembled guests; but, however, there was the recherche repast, and it received ample justice from those present. Among them were Messrs. Bird, Duffy, Gastineau, Hirschfeld, Hoffer, Minchin, Potter, Zukertort, Professor Wayte, and Dr. Ballard. Mr. Blackburne and one or two others came in afterwards, their object being to see the great " Mephisto," who was waiting in an adjoining room to receive his visitors. The dinner being finished, it was time for the curiosity of the guests to be satisfied, and they were accordingly conducted into the reception chamber. There they saw a being magnificently attired and jewelled, sitting in an easy attitude before a chessboard. He had a shrewd, but not very malevolent appearance, and but for the sight of one of his feet, as they could be observed crossed under the table no great fears might have been entertained by any one. However the sight of an individual rejoicing in a cloven foot is apt to cause some alarm. It appeared that " Mephisto " was willing to play a game with any one so inclined ; and Mr. Minchin, one of the strongest English players outside the first class, sat down for that purpose. The game was watched with much interest, and so were the players, especially " Mephisto.1' He paid great attention to it, looking here and there over the board, now to this side now to that. Evidently he was studying his moves deeply. The contest was short, and in the end Mr. Micchin resigned. The game is one of those we have given above. Mr. Hirschfeld, who, as all chess players know, is one of our first-class experts, then sat down to test " Mephisto's " skill. This combat went on for thirty-nine moves, and the hoofed gentleman ultimately obtained much the better, if not a winning, position; but was misled by a circumstance related in our notes to the game, which also is given above. It was not finished ; but, if continued, would probably have ended in a draw. We must now speak more mechanically of Mr. * * * 's remarkable invention; for the creature we have been descri bing is a machine figure devised by him, and able by its semi-anatomical construction to make all the necessary moves upon the chess-board. There would be nothing wonderful in " Mephisto" were he merely a cunningly-contrived receptacle inside which a man or youth might be concealed, That kind of showman's trick has been indeed worked to death; nor, according to our ideas, was it at any time worthy of notice. "Mephisto" is a slim figure, sitting at an ordinary chess-table. There is no possibility of any person being concealed either in or anywhere about him. He is not attached to a chest or placed against a wall, wherein there might be a cupboard. The visitors were able to go all round and examine him for themselves, as also underneath him ; and some of them did scrutinise all his appurtenances most narrowly. The means by which the unseen intelligence is communicated to the figure is, of course, Mr. * * * 's secret; but it was obvious that no one in the room supplied that intelligence. The chessmen, unlike those used by other so-called automata, are of different sizes, and " Mephisto" is able to play them to and from any square—his right arm with which he takes them up, being so constructed as to work with all necessary contractions and turnings for that purpose—the same almost as if he were a living player. " Mephisto," and his mode of playing, excited great admiration, and we imagine he will cause a sensation at the Paris Exposition, where, as we understand, he is to make his first public appearance. Besides Mr. Minchin, the following players have suffered defeat at his hands, viz., Messrs. Delannoy, Potter, Manning, and H. F. Down.


The London Figaro.

The New Mechanical Chess Player, "mephisto."—Great sensation is caused in Metropolitan chess circles by the exhibition of a mechanical chess player, the invention of Mr. * * *, of * * * Square, which differs from previous so-called chess-playing machines in the important point that neither the moving figure, which represents a full-size but well-shaped " Mephisto " nor the table on which the game is played, can possibly conceal any human being however diminutive in size. The player opposed to the automaton is merely requested to make his move, whereupon " Mephisto" raises his arm by a slow but graceful movement, and plays his reply on the board, apparently in the most sensible manner. The secret of the mechanism has excited the admiration and baffled the ingenuity of mechanical experts, while the play of the automaton in various encounters against a large number of private visitors, which included some Metropolitan players of great force, has been characterised by such high qualities as to point to its being conducted by a master of great repute.



A Mechanical Chess Player.—We have been favoured by the inventor, Mr. * * * *, with a private view of a mechanical figure which plays chess, and plays it very well, too. It is not to be confounded with the so-called automaton chess-player within which is concealed a living player and in which a heterogeneous congeries of wheels and levers is packed for the sole purpose of deceiving the spectator. The figure, which is modelled and dressed to resemble the stage Mephistopheles, is purely mechanical, and we were satisfied that nothing was inside it excepting the chains and cords employed to produce the necessary movements. It is in a sitting position, the right arm and hand, with which the moves are made, being alone free to move, and the action is amazingly natural. Of course the intellectual operations of the chess player must be performed in another room, the mechanical part of his duty being ingeniously transferred to the figure. How this is done is the inventor's secret.


Weekly Times.

Pretended automata which could play Chess and perform other games have been common enough, but we never remember to have seen anything which can compare with " Mephisto." All doubt is set at rest as to whether a child or dwarf is concealed in the figure by the thorough personal examination to which it is open, showing conclusively that whatever may be the secret, that that is not " how it's done." " Mephisto " is not exactly unknown in Chess circles, having defeated some of the best known metropolitan players before he went to the Paris Exhibition. The gentleman who, after seven years of patient study, has accomplished this extraordinary piece of mechanism, is of such a modest disposition that he does not even make his name public, although we may say he is not altogether unknown in the world of science. We do not purpose attempting any detailed description of the complicated actions which " Mephisto " is capable of performing, as the thing itself must be seen to be thoroughly appreciated.



The unknown agent is evidently a player of ability. " Mephisto " is slim, and well dressed in the style usually worn by Faust's Mentor. He is seated with outstretched legs, crossed— the hoof is not wanting—in a chair, under which it is stated is the mechanism, and in front of an ordinary Chess-table. There is a hole in his back, into which you can probe a cane, and certainly it would appear that in his case there is no player concealed within or under him, however otherwise the knowledge is conveyed to the guiding agent. Visitors are allowed to walk around and examine him whilst play is going on. Mephisto's moves are at times well considered—though the openings are quickly executed—and when decided upon there is no faltering, but are slowly and deliberately made, with the right hand, gloved. The most difficult, such as a knight's or castling, are marvellously executed, the turnings of the shoulder and the action of the fingers being perfect. He intimates check by tapping his opponent's King, and when taking a piece removes it before touching his own. Occasionally, when he has made what he considers, and he is seldom wrong, a good move, he evinces his self-satisfaction with a shake of his head and a sardonic smile. Altogether, " Mephisto " is well worth a visit.


Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper

The mystery of the so-called '' Automaton Chess-Player," which excited the world a century ago, and was revived in a bungling fashion at the Crystal Palace during recent years, has led to the construction of a far more curious figure, which plays Chess in the midst of a circle of spectators, and may at the same time be probed with a cane in a manner that appears to defy the possibility of any person being concealed, as was the case originally. Mephisto is the name given to the figure, and its anonymous inventor represents it simply as a scientific puzzle. Several gentlemen played against the demon yesterday afternoon and were easily beaten. At one time the Chess-board was completely covered with a cloth held just above the tops of the men, but Mephisto was quickly awake to an unexpected move made for the purpose of testing his skill.



As a specimen of mechanical ingenuity, " Mephisto" reflects the greatest credit upon the inventive power of his originator, and not only is he deserving of public attention, but will afford an interesting problem to scientific men to discover how the human agency is applied to give the necessary motive power to enable Mephisto to play so intricate a game. The inventor very modestly shrinks from publicity, but states that his chief object in making the figure is his love for the game, and a wish to popularise it, and to make it take a more prominent position in our modern games.



Mechanical Chess-Players have been frequently invented and introduced to the public, and some have been of the most ingenious construction. As this extremely clever performer will shortly leave London to delight the Parisians with his skill, lovers of a good game of chess should pay "Mephisto" a visit. They must not be deterred by his unearthly aspect. The philosophers tell us that the Mephistopheles of the present day is quite a "modern gentleman," and our friend "Mephisto" will be found a most affable and courteous opponent. We find this unearthly-looking performer seated in a chair at an ordinary chess table. The chair on which he sits has a deep seat, but the visitor cannot unravel the mystery that way, for he is at liberty to inspect it, and even the body of the figure, while the game is proceeding, and it is evident that no human performer could find room to assist " Mephisto" in the management of his kings, castles, or pawns. The aspect of "Mephisto" is, for such a clever fiend, rather agreeable, and nothing is more amusing than the weird smile on his countenance when he has made a particularly good move and has got his antagonist in a "hot corner." Mephisto generally sits with his face uncovered, but he can play a good game with his head enveloped in a newspaper. This, however, is not perhaps the most wonderful part of the arrangement, as we know a blind man who is an accomplished chess player. The mechanism is certainly most ingenious and well managed, since the most experienced in such matters confess themselves unable to explain the contrivance.


Daily News.

Hitherto, we believe, "automaton" chess players have had their secret agencies ruthlessly exposed, but in this instance, while an agency is freely admitted, it successfully defies discovery. The figure has no visible connection with any surrounding object, and from its construction any person can easily satisfy himself that no jive person is concealed inside it. It is richly attired in the Mephistophelian costume, and its features are characterised by the astuteness and weird amiability that are popularly supposed to attach to that famous personage. " Mephisto " grasps the pieces on the board with a flexible hand, encased in a black kid glove, places and removes them with singular accuracy, indicates a mate by touching the king, and a checkmate by removing it from the board, and depositing it on the side opposite to that where he has placed the pieces previously taken. He indulges in frequent gestures, turning his head from side to side, and occasionally favouring his opponent with a gracious nod.


The Times.

The history of chess-automata is a remarkable one. Von Kempelen's chess-player made the tour of the Courts of Europe and its secret was twice sold to crowned heads. The clever concealment of a human being in the interior was the explanation of all its wonderful achievements, and the merit of its invention lay in the devices by which the manipulation hid the person within while appearing to court inspection. The Crystal Palace automaton was an adaptation of the same idea. " Mephisto " depends upon another principle. He is actuated from without by a human intelligence, and the problem is to ascertain how the moves upon the board become known to his director and how the counter- moves are communicated to the figure. Ordinarily the board is uncovered, but occasionally a newspaper is placed over it, so that the moves could not be reflected by a mirror in the ceiling, and "Mephisto" plays a move in spite of the obstruction. The mystery of " Mephisto's " action is to be explained by the use of clever mechanism.


Brighton Paper

The other evening we paid Mephisto a visit, and on entering the room found him seated at an ordinary table, upon which is placed a chess-board. Any visitor who can play is welcome to compete with Mephisto, and as soon as the former seats himself opposite him at the table, the automaton player will usually make the first move, and will almost invariably obtain the victory over his opponent. Whilst they were playing we had an opportunity of examining the figure, which is life size. We had an idea that possibly someone might be concealed inside, but in order to dispel such a notion, the exhibitor took a stick, which he put into the back of Mephisto's neck, and ran it down inside of his body. The chair upon which he sits is an ordinary one, and in no way connected with the floor, other than by the four legs. Mephisto works by machinery, there can be no doubt of that, but how he is enabled to make the right move on the board is a perfect mystery. What will astonish the visitor most is the fact that the chess board can be covered over, and yet Mephisto will know his opponent's move, and make his reply accordingly, or correct a false move. He plays well, and at times when he has obtained a victory, or perplexed his opponent, he will raise his head and look triumphantly upon him, which, with his sardonic smile, causes great amusement amongst the visitors. In taking our leave of Mephisto all we can say is that, on the whole, he is a wonderful piece of mechanism; and we would recommend our readers to pay him a visit if they wish to see something marvellous.



Mephisto.—The fiend who, according to his biographer, Goethe, tempted Faust, and lured the fair Margaret to her ruin, has, we rejoice to say, devoted himself to a more innocent employment. He has taken apartments at 48A, Regent Street, where he is ready to play chess with anybody for sixpence a game. He plays strongly, too, yet the wonder is that he can play any game at all, considering that often, when he is meditating a move, his attendant pokes a cane through a hole in his back into the centre of his body, to prove to visitors that there is no dwarf or other human creature concealed inside, as was the case with Von Kempelen's so-called "automaton" chess-player. Mephisto well deserves a visit. He is an urbane and gentlemanlike fiend, and the manner in which he grasps and lifts the chessmen indicates remarkable mechanical ingenuity. Of course there is human agency somewhere, but how it's done we don't pretend to say.


Land and Water

This wonderful piece of mechanical genius, whose pretensions are as honest as they are remarkable, has proved enduringly interesting to scientific men. Our own notions concerning Mephisto, and our appreciation of it as a triumph of mechanical skill altogether unprecedented, have heretofore been fully expressed, and need not be repeated. If there are any of our readers who have not seen and played with Mephisto they should seize the opportunity now offered them of doing so. While pleased to invite them to do this on their own behalf we are not free from the wish to serve the inventor, who, to our own personal knowledge, devoted years of study and experiment, and spent much money, before he succeeded in perfecting his conception.


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