Chess-Playing Machines

Chess-Playing Machines

Feb 15, 2015, 12:00 AM |
16 | Chess Players

     Dr. Richard Eales' great book "Chess: the History of a Game" in part traces the popularity of mostly modern chess through time.  I was chagrined, however, by its minor mention of the Turk in this regard.  Obviously I consider the exploits of the automaton a major factor in the promulgation of chess during its heyday.  Wolfgang von Kempelen's invention captures the spirit of those times when the potential of science seemed boundless and anything seemed possible. 

     But the Turk was just one of several known automatons, each of which had its own special flavor. My taste buds are excited by each and every one, but most especially by the Wondrous Ajeeb.

     Some time ago I took a notion to document some source material for each of these famous automatons.  The links below lead to all sorts of information. Below the links are some more things concerning Ajeeb followed by introductions to other, lesser-known automatons.

Chess Automatons:  source material for the Turk, Ajeeb and Mephisto
Mouret : one of the Turk's most famous directors.
Peter Unger Williams : one of the Turk's directors in England.
William Lewis : one of the Turk's directors in England.
William Schlumberger : the Turk's director in the United States and Cuba.
'Hajeeb', das orientalische Wunder : more on Ajeeb.
Sarah Loves Ajeeb : yet more on Ajeeb
Mephisto revisited : more on Mephisto.
A List of Automaton Directors






Ajeeb was born in Bristol, England and died in Coney Island, NY.  It toured both Europe and the United States, but is best remembered, perhaps, for its tenure at the Eden Musée in NYC.

Ajeeb, the chess-playing automaton, has played many thousand games as the Eden Musee, New York, during the past twenty years and has seldom been beaten by its opponents. The figure was invented by an Englishman, Charles Alfred Hooper. It represents a Moor seated on a cushion, beneath which is an open table ; in front is a small cabinet with doors, all of which are open, as are the back and chest of the figure. Any stranger is at liberty to play a game with the automaton ; the movements of the figure are free and easy, and it shifts the pieces with as much accuracy as its living opponents, and with much greater success, generally coming off the conqueror. In giving check to the king, the automaton makes a sign by raising its head twice; for checkmate it nods three times.

"The Sketch,"  March 11, 1908

My friend, Deb, brought this image to my attention:
 Ajeeb at the Eden Musée, Dec. 1885
This image was apparently made from the photo above it.

"News Herald," Aug.16, 1888

St. Paul "DailyGlobe," Jan. 22,1888

Omaha "Daily Bee," April 14, 1888
This article uses the same image as the "News Herald," three above.
Ajeeb wins
Ajeeb loses
     Shortly after Johann Nepomuk Maezel arrived in the United States with his automaton, the Turk, three men - the Walker brothers, Englishmen who had moved to Connecticut and Phineas Bennett, an American from Ithaca, N.Y. - constructed a close duplicate of the Turk and began showing it.  Maezel tried to buy it from them, but they turned down his offer.  The Turk with William Schlumberger as it's director was a much stronger chess player. This, in addition to the fact that Maelzel's show involved more than the automaton, must have been enough to put the American Automaton, as it was called, out of business. At least one of the Walkers took a job as a cashier for Maezel's operation.  Phineas Bennett went on to become a serious inventor, praised highly by the U.S. Navy.  Below are some details as well as news items from that time.
The American Automaton
Cayuga Patriot, 1826

     The first notice I had of the existence of this automaton came from Prof.George Allen's detailed account of the Turk in the "Book of the First American Chess Congress".
Prof. Allen wrote:
    Maelzel once said, “You  Americans are a very singular people. I went with my Automaton all over my own country—the Germans wondered and said nothing. In France, they exclaimed, Magnifique! Marveilleux! 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 see me, and said, ‘Mr. Maelzel, would you like another thing like that? I can make you one for five hundred dollars.’ I laughed at his proposition. A few months afterwards, the same Yankee came to see 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.’" This was Maelzel’s account of a matter, which—like the discovery of the secret—gave him some trouble, and ought (one would think) to have destroyed the attraction of his Chess-player. But again his star prevailed.
     I have only an imperfect knowledge of this cross-current in the stream of my history, but I give what I have been able to learn.  An ingenious “ Yankee"—so they call him, but I do not know whether I ought to admit him to share with me that title—had begun to construct an automaton chess-player before Maelzel’s visit to this country. From what is said of it, I infer that it was made after the conjectural drawings given in Willis' clever book. The maker—-Mr. Walker—did not finish it, and begin to exhibit it, until after Maelzel had gone to Baltimore. The first exhibition was in May (I think) 1827, at New York, at the corner of Reade street and Broadway. The newspapers pronounced it to be, every way, as good as Maelzel’s Turk, except that it was by no means so strong a player. As soon as Maelzel became aware that this rival Automaton was in the field, he wrote to his friend Coleman, to inquire about it; and Coleman was “discomfortable cousin" enough to answer, that Walker’s was decidedly the better Automaton of the two. Thereupon Maelzel hurried on to New York— in the interval (as I conjecture) between the closing and the renewal of his season in Baltimore—and forthwith went with Coleman to witness the performance of the “American Chess-Player." When the exhibition was over, he was introduced by Coleman to the two brothers Walker, and said to them, in what they characterize as his “sly way" (put on, perhaps because he was talking to Yankees), “Your Automaton is very good, but then you know it is very different from mine. There is no use of our having two automatons in the field. I will give you a thousand dollars for your machine, just to tear it up; and you shall become my cashiers."  The brothers declined the offer, and proceeded to exhibit their Chess-player at Saratoga, Ballston, and other places. Maelzel returned to Baltimore, and in due time re-opened his exhibition, just as coolly, to all appearance, as if his secret had not been completely exposed, and as if his Automaton had not ceased to be a unique wonder, within the space of a few weeks. My opinion is, that Maelzel had seen too much, during his visit to New-York, and had reflected too much on the deep-rooted prejudice of the American people in favor of his Automaton, to be seriously disturbed by the prospect of what the brothers Walker could do to interfere with his success. It was not any Automaton, that the people were bent on finding supremely wonderful, but the Automaton—the unique, historical invention of Von Kempelen. It was fatal, again, to the Walker Chess-player, that anybody could beat it. And finally, what were the American brothers Walker—ingeni0us men, to be sure, but “prophets in their own country "—in comparison with the most celebrated mechanician of the age, the inventor of the Metronome and of the Panharmonicon, whose name had been repeated in every scientific journal, from the "Magazin Encyclopédique" to the "Edinburgh Journal of Science" ; and what was their naked exhibition of a Chess-player, copied from other men’s drawings, to such a display of mechanical genius as one evening in Maclzel’s Hall presented, when the original Chess-player was seen in connection with the Funambulists, and with Moscow, with the Speaking Figures and the Trumpeter, all introduced to the admiration of the spectators by the inventor himself, with a tact which proved him to be the absolute perfection of an exhibitor? A year in America must have satisfied so shrewd an observer as Maelzel, that he occupied a vantage ground, from which no efforts of rival exhibitors, nor even the ordinary accidents of fortune, could easily drive him. He took full time, therefore, for his Baltimore season; and it was not until after the beginning of December, that he retraced his steps leisurely to Philadelphia and New York.
. . .
On the 9th day of May, and to appearance, while on his way from Philadelphia to Boston, Maelzel cautioned the public, through the New York "Evening Post," against the “American Automaton Chessplayer,” then exhibiting at the Museum. The thing, he assured them, “was not the Automaton, exhibited by him in New York, two years before, nor had it any real pretentions to the skill and power of that celebrated Chessplayer." It must have been subsequent to this manifesto, I suppose—but I do not know when or for how long a time—that one of the Walkers really traveled with Maelzel as his Cashier, but with no reference to any purchase of the “American Chess-player."
     The same book tells us "Mr. Walker, the inventor of the American Chess Automaton" was listed among the audience in Paul Morphy's final game against Louis Paulsen at the 1st  American Chess Congress.

     "The Albany Argus," August 6, 1827.
The American Automaton Chess Player.
     About the year 1783, M. de Kempelin, of Presburg, in Hungary, a gentleman of great scientific and mechanical skill, constructed an automaton chess-player, representing a figure in Turkish costume, similarly disposed to the American androids which we shall hereafter describe.
     This figure performed all the various moves of a game of chess, with the utmost regularity and precision.  It excited the astonishment of all Europe for many years, and various attempts were made to imitate it and to discover the principles of its movements.  This machine, perhaps somewhat modified, was last year brought to the United States, by Mr. Maelzel, the proprietor ; and exhibited in the cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, &c, where it has excited the same general interest and admiration which it had previously done in Europe.  S confident was Maelzel in the security of his secret against the prying curiosity and prevailing ingenuity of our countrymen, that he repeatedly and publically challenged competition and discovery. -- But the object is at length accomplished.  
     The secret, which puzzled for half a century the science and ingenuity of Europe, is finally discovered in an interior village of America by persons humble in their pretensions, and who possessed few facilities for experiment, and for the procuring or construction of nice and complicated machinery.
     The fact was first announced to us in the New York papers,that an imitation of Maelzel's chess player had been made in the village of Ithaca, and was exhibiting in that city.  Then in the city, we were somewhat surprised at this announcement, and went with the expectation of detecting a hoax or imposition.  It was therefore a pleasant development of the mystery, to meet the exhibitors, two of our most worthy and industrious fellow-citizens, (the Messrs Walkers) and in the machine itself, all that had been pretended.  We witnessed its frequent exhibition and performance, in the presence of numerous and respectable visitants, most of whom had witnessed the performance of Mr. Maelzel's machine, and who considered the American as a close imitation, and full equal in point of mechanical ingenuity.  Like that of M. de Kempelen (or of Mr. Maelzel) it represents a figure as large as life, clothed in Turkish costume, with a long black beard and whiskers, (savage enough, by the by) sitting behind a table or bureau, about three feet and a half in length, two in depth and  two and a half in height, with door, and a drawer about six inches deep at the bottom, and running upon castors.  The left arm of the android (with which it plays) is extended upon the table, upon a cushion, the ends of the fingers and thumb contracted together.  The right arm rests from near the elbow, upon a table, back of the hand up, and fingers extended.  A chess board is attached to the table in front of the figure.  
     Preparatory to playing, the machine is rolled into the room before the audience, doors are thrown open in front, the drawer pulled out and fathomed, and clock work, with wheels, weights, &c., nearly filling the whole cavity, is exhibited ; the machine is then wheeled around, doors are opened in the rear, the light shines throughout the whole exhibiting throughout the bureau, and in the body of the figure as far as the breast, the same full appearance of mechanism as before. ---
     The machine is then wound up in two places, the front of the bureau, and the breast of the figure, and is announced ready to play.  The adversary, with another chess-board, is seated at a table in front of the figure.  The men being placed for a whole or the end of a game, a stop removed and the figure commences.  The joint of the wrist first rises, then the arm, until it rests upon the ends of the fingers ; the figure turns it's head from side to side, the eyes move naturally, as if surveying the board ; the joint of the wrist is depressed, the arm rises and moves, the thumb and fingers expand, and when over the piece, descend and close upon it, raises and carry it to its place ; and the arm, with all the natural contractions and motions of the human arm, returns to its position as before.  Thus all the moves of the game are naturally and skillfully made ; when occasion requires, the figure cries "check: and raps the fingers of the right hand smartly upon the table in case of a false move.  Indeed, the exhibition is extremely interesting, even to one totally unacquainted with the game.  It is apparent, that the machinery must be of the nicest and most ingenious description, to be capable of so many various and complicated movements, and to be thus obedient to the slightest application of power.  And the great mystery is, how this power is supplies.  We shall venture no suggestion upon this point.
    As to the inventors or discoverers of this curious production, since something has been said in this paper, it is proper that we should state the facts, so far as we are enabled.  We think ourselves, therefore, warranted in saying to Messrs. Walkers, particularly to Mr. John Walker, and to Mr. Phineas Bennett, of this village, the credit of the production jointly belongs.  To Mr Walker may properly be assigned the scientific part, the calculations of the game, and other particulars ; while to the ingenuity, the theoretical and practical skill in machinery of Mr. Bennett, he acknowledges himself indebted for great assistance in the final consummation of the object.
     The machinery was made conformable to their directions by Mr. Joseph Burritt, a silversmith in this village.  The whole was constructed at leisure periods of time, within the past year ; and their operations were ept perfectly secret, the inventors deeming it proper not to give publicity to their object until they tested the accuracy and success of their machine upon the theatre of Mr. Maelzel's performance.  The experiment has fully answered their expectations.  They have produced, by an original combination of machinery, thesame operations and effects as those of Mr. Maelzel's automaton ; and this was their object and design.
     The Messrs. Walker are indeed, as stated in this paper, Englishmen by birth.  But in this place which they have chosen as a permanent residence, they have proved themselves by their honorable deportment, industry and enterprise, worthy to be acknowledged and cherished by the country of their adoption.  Mr. Bennett is a native American, an ingenious mill-wright and a worthy citizen, who has resided for the greater part of his life-time in this village and its vicinity.  And it detracts not from the merits of a discovery which has for so long a time defied the science and ingenuity of Europe, that such men, though born in different climes, without open pretensions or conflicting claims, are justly entitled to share the honours of the achievement.
     "Mr. Bennet was a very successful inventor. Among other things he invented the following: a method of generating steam for the steam engine; a device for cutting off the steam from the piston chamber to obviate the necessity of injecting cold water into the chamber to condense the steam; an invention for generating gas from coal or wood: a device for raising sunken vessels; an air brake which was afterwards modified and used by the Westinghouse Company. Mr. Bennet was also the inventor of the noted American automaton chess player." - "John Keep of Longmeadow, Massachusetts," 1899 [Bennet married Hepsibeth Keep (1809-1874) on May 23, 1830. They had two daughters, Mary and Augusta.  Phineas Bennett died Mach 25, 1859]
"Philadelphia Monthly Magazine" 1928
     The language of eulogy has been so frequently and so lavishly employed in the present age, that discriminating praise, if bestowed on any book, any action, or any contrivance, in the proper degree, would be regarded, at least by the persons concerned, as cold and unsatisfactory. Two productions, connected with the arts of mechanism and design, have lately been offered to the public, which merit and should receive a notice—we mean the American "Chess-Player" and Maelzel's "Conflagration of Moscow."
     The American Automaton is the joint production of Walker and Bennet, mechanics, in Ithaca, New York; and was constructed in that Village. Neither of those persons had any other opportunity of examining the contrivance of Mr.Maelzel, than all possess who have been present at his exhibitions. Mr. M.'s Automaton is well known. We shall merely note the points of difference between the two machines. The box of the American Automaton is several inches shorter than the other. The height and depth are somewhat less. There is apparently much more machinery in it than in the German, and more of the interior is exhibited. The exhibitor of the former opens all the front doors; the drawer is brought out to its utmost extent; and the back door in the body of the figure is opened, and a light held behind it, so that the spectator sitting in front, sees the whole machinery within it. The three back doors, the front doors and the drawer, are all open at the same time.
     No door is locked until every one has been opened.
     Judging from inspection, and the modes of exhibiting the respective apparatus, there appears to be a difference in the principles on which they have been constructed. With respect to the prevailing opinion of the governing power of the machine, viz. a human agent concealed within the case; we think it highly probable with regard to Maelzel's, since there is ample room in it for a person of moderate stature. The American Automaton may be managed by the same agency, but the probabilities, at least, that such is the fact, are much diminished by a fuller and more complete exhibition of the interior. If this be the case, great praise is due to the inventors of the American machine, since the illusion is more perfect, and of course the scrutiny of the spectators more completely baffled. The workmanship of the American apparatus is less elegant than that of the German; but the motion of the arm and hand of the former, is mechanically superior, as it approaches much nearer to the natural movements of those members.  If these advantageous peculiarities in the American machine excite admiration, it is proper to add that they are in some measure counterbalanced by the surpassing skill manifested by the German in the management of the game.
     Pennsylvania Magazine of History. (New York "Post," May 28, 1827)
     "The two Walker brothers from Connecticut had made a player, and had exhibited it in New York during May and June, 1827, terming it an American chess player, a "Jonathan" invention. Maelzel's challenge to the Walkers for a fifteen-game match between the German and American machines for a stake of $3,000 was not accepted, and his offer to buy the new machine was declined. Maelzel drolly commented on the situation."

     "The Americans in their Moral, Social and Political Relations" by Francis Grund, 1837
     The automaton chess-player was but a short time in the United Stated, when an American rival appeared, in every respect equal to that which was exhibited by Mr. Maelzel.  The mechanism was the same, and it was exhibited in the same manner, by opening  but one door of the box at a time.  But Mr. Maelzel had the triumph of beating him, or rather making him decline the challenge ; the person concealed in the American automaton being weaker that Mr. Schlumberger (employed by Maelzel) whose skill in the game for many years been tested by the players of the Cafe de la Regence.
The Balcom Whist-playing Automaton

     Shortly after the Walkers and Bennett introducted their Turk imitation, another man, Dr. D.A. Balcom, a dental surgeon from Geneva, N.Y. (one source claims he was from Norwalk, Connecticut), approached Maelzel, offering, or claiming to be able, to make him a second chess-playing automaton.  Although a dental surgeon,  Balcom  also made artificial limbs and eyes of his own design.  

     Maelzel, who didn't want another chess playing automaton, instead commissioned Balcom to built a whist-playing automaton. This project, undertaken in Geneva, N.Y., was completed around Setember of 1827.  Prof. Allen conjectured that Balcom might have actually completed a chess-playing aoutomaton, but was paid by Maelzel to modify it into a whist-playing one.
Prof. George Allen tells us:
     ...he [Maelzel] never troubled himself about the Walker Automaton after his first offer.* The only other transaction, that I know anything of, is a negotiation of much the same kind with another ingenious Yankee, Mr. Balcom, who had made, or proposed to make, still another Automaton Chess-player. I think it very likely, that Maelzel bought Mr. Balcom off; but whether—as stated in the "Chess Monthly"—there ever really was a finished Automaton in the case, purchased for five thousand dollars, and "ruthlessly consigned to the flames," may perhaps require some confirmation.  It is certain, however, that in some way he took Mr. Balcom's genius into pay; for on the 6th of September he publicly announced the reception of a new Android, the American Whist-player. Now this Whist-player was made by Mr. Balcom for Maelzel; and the probability is, that what was originally begun by the troublesome Yankee as a Chess-Player was never finished as such, but was turned into this less objectionable shape  "for a consideration," and so the "opposition" ended. Whether any actual use was made of this new Android I am not informed. I have been told, however, that the nearest Schlumberger was ever known to come to an involuntary revelation of the secret, whereof he was the depositary, was in protesting to a friend against the substitution of an Automaton Whist-player for the Automaton Chess-player, "For," says he, very earnestly, "do not like Whist, but I do like Chess."
                                              New Automaton
     This is truly an age of novelty.  Whilst new inventions, improvements and theories are coming into notice in different parts of the world, we are happy to notice that this village is not destitute of the genius to invent, and theindustry to accomplish, which characterize other parts of our country.
     About three months since a gentleman whose name is Balcom, and who had acquired considerable reputation as a Surgeon Dentist, came to pay us a visit, and repair the irregular and defective members of the eating part of community.
     For two months pasr, during which time he has had the misfortune to be confined of a dislocation of the ankle, he was observed to be very busy, and surrounded by artificial legs, arms, heads, &c.  Some said he feared the Doctors would deprive him of those parts of his body, and he was intent to supply himself with wooden ones.  Some conjectured he was making a new man, to supply the place of the old man of the moon ; and others, wiser still, averred he was constructing a second witch of Endor.  But now (in the words of Goldsmith)
                             A wonder comes to light,
                             That shows the rogues they lied.
     He claps together these scattered parts, and behold, a Turkish looking wooden gentleman "as large as life," ready to answer a course of questions on philosophy!
     It is said that this mechanist is the inventor of the artificial arm, which not long since justly attracted so much notice in the public papers.  His machinery is ingeniously constructed, and the Automaton performs various motions to dmiration.  We do not  hesitate to say, that this figure, and the Automaton Chess-player are as near akin as cousins
     "Geneva Gazette," Sept. 27, 1826
     Balcom's Automaton appears to have been somewhat more than a whist-player:
The Automaton. — In the Automaton,now to be seen in this village, we have an amusing instance of mechanical ingenuity.  His powers are such, that if a spectator deposits a card with a question on it in a particular draw[er] of the table before him, he will appear to consult a volume which is in one hand, shake his head as if pondering on the question proposed, and with the other hand strike on the table, when a blooming damsel springs through the board, holding in her little arpon a correct answer for the inquirer.
     Such results, however  are produced only when the questions are agreeable to his Automatonship.  Put into a bowl a question to excite his ire, and the consequence is vastly different.  He shakes his head like an enraged pedagogue, and in the climax of his passion thumps upon the table—anon a blue and a volume of smoke are seen, and a black figure, like the father of evil, emerges from his den, spitting fire and striking terror into beholders.
     We have just now seen what we speak of, and on the spur of the moment recommend all who admire ingenuity to gratify themselves adn encourage merit by witnessing the performance of tha Automaton.  Like Maelzel's chess-player, it is dressed in Turkinh costume.  It was made by Dr. Balcom, who it is well known, has pu artificial arms on disarmed men, and thus enable them to procure their livelihood, instead of becoming a burden to their friends or the town. - Rochester Rep.

     —Westfield NY's "The Western Star," Dec. 9, 1826.
The above reporter seems to have confused Balcom with Bennett.


     Dr. Balcom's apparatus preceded the more famous British-made whist-playing automaton, Psycho, by a half-century.
     See the Cybernetic Zoo for detailed information on this and other such inventions.
     The cover/thumbnail image is a stylized composite of images used in the 1821 book,
     "An Attempt to Analyse the Automaton Chess Player,"
by Robert Willis.
More from batgirl
The Julien Levy Gallery

The Julien Levy Gallery

The Dean of American Chess

The Dean of American Chess