Maelzel, Schlumberger and the Turk

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The Turk's time and fame in America was defined almost exclusively by two men - Johann Nepomuk Maelzel and William Schlumberger.


     Not a whole lot is known of Wilhelm (William) Schlumberger.

     He was born in Mulhouse in Alsace region of France - around 1800 give or take a few years - where the Schlumberger family operated a large winery that is in operation today. They were also industrialists who operated fabric mills in the area. Schlumberger was a leading French player (his German name comes from the fact that Alsace lies next to Germany and has often changed alliances throughout history between France and Germany. During Schlumberger's life, Alsace was French. In America, his German acquaintances called him the Swiss, since at one time the area around Mulhouse was Swiss territory). He's best known for his chess in America where he arrived on October 1, 1826 under a contract to operate Maelzel's automaton, the Turk. He was the Turk's last operator (previous operators during its European tour had been Johann Allgaier in Germany,  Boncourt, Wéiyle, Aaron Alexandre and Jacques-Francis Mouret in France, Peter Unger Williams and William Lewis in England - additionally, the possibility of  Lloyd Smith). Surprisingly, he was to replace a young French woman, (the wife of the man who guided the motions  of his Rope-Dancers  - one of his other exhibitions that day, along with the Austrian Trumpeter) who, for lack of chess players in America,  was the operator,  the Directress,  when the Turk premiered on April 13, 1826 at the National Hotel, 112 Broadway, NY.  She was only capable of playing pre-established endgames. Schlumberger had his own peculiar experiences. He almost gave away the secret of the Turk when some school boys reportedly saw him exiting the cabinet after an exhibition. Then on January 30 and 31, 1827, the Turk played a game against a certain Mrs. Fischer. Mrs. Fischer won the game. After the game Maelzel explained that the Turk had only ever lost three games; once in Paris, once in Boston and by Mrs. Fischer in Philadelphia. The game, published in the newspapers, was possibly the first published game by an American woman chess player.

     Edgar Allen Poe wrote in his famous exposé of the Turk:

     There is a man, Schlumberger, who attends him wherever he goes, but who has no ostensible occupation other than that of assisting in the packing and unpacking of the automaton. This man is about the medium size, and has a remarkable stoop in the shoulders. Whether he professes to play chess or not, we are not informed. It is quite certain, however, that he is never to be seen during the exhibition of the Chess-Player, although frequently visible just before and just after the exhibition. Moreover, some years ago Maelzel visited Richmond with his automata, and exhibited them, we believe, in the house now occupied by M. Bossieux as a Dancing Academy.
     Schlumberger was suddenly taken ill, and during his illness there was no exhibition of the Chess Player. These facts are well known to many of our citizens. The reason assigned for the suspension of the Chess-Player's performances, was not the illness of Schlumberger. The inferences from all this we leave, without farther comment, to the reader.


     Schlumberger was educated in Paris. He was a fine mathematician, spoke French and German as his native tongues and was fluent in English. He had a fondness for books and literature. Starting his adult life in his family business, he and his brother shared the responsibility of the Parisian dépôt to that business. Due to a business reversal (St. Amant claimed, probably incorrectly, it was Schlumberger losing his patrimony gambling at chess) Schlumberger left the business and started teaching chess at the Café de la Régence to support himself. Since he started as Professeur des Échecs, in all likelihood, he had been spending an inordinate amount of time playing chess - perhaps time that should have been spend on his business responsibilities. Around 1823 Pierre Charles Fournier de Saint Amant sought out Schlumberger for lessons in improving his chess. At that time Schlumberger was receiving Pawn and move from La Bourdonnais and played even with Mouret and Boncourt. The Parisian players somehow found the name Schlumberger distasteful and would only refer to him as Mulhouse. Making a living as a chess professional was precarious at best. When he was approached by a representative of Maelzel to emigrate to the United States with the steady job as the Director of the Turk, Schlumberger jumped at the chance. Maelzel most likely paid for his relocation and they contracted his salary at $50 per month. Besides his work as Director of the Turk, Schlumberger seems to have had contracted to perform in the positions of Assistant, Secretary and Clerk. Eventually he also became Maelzel's possibly only friend and confidant.

     Schlumberger's disembarked in New York City and arrived in Boston on the 1st of October, 1826. His arrival was not kept secret since Maelzel had decided that such a thing was futile. Instead Schlumberger mingled with the cream of the Bostonian players: Samuel Dexter, Robert T. Paine, Benjamin Lynde Oliver, all three attorneys,  Mr. Piquet, the French consul and Dr. Benjamin D. Greene. Schlumberger knew Dexter from la Régence He proclaimed Mr. Oliver Boston's best player. Maelzel started the tradition of dining with Schlumberger and playing chess while they ate. Maelzel was every bit addicted to chess as his Director, though Maelzel was only an average player. However, Maelzel was a particularly strong endgame player, even better than Schlumberger himself.

     Schlumberger was a tall man of over 6 feet with a large, muscular, well-proportioned figure. He had a finely shaped head with dark brow hair and chestnut eyes. He did, however walk with a slump ("a remarkable stoop in his shoulders" - E. A. Poe). While he dressed appropriately in social situations, he was known to be somewhat disheveled when playing chess. He considered himself stronger at draughts than at chess.

     Initially, the Turk had been playing endgames only:  first operated by the French woman who was the wife of an operator of one of Maelzel's other attractions, and, after she vanished, by some hastily selected and trained recruits. Schlumberger's arrival was was a relief to Maelzel. The American public was more eager to see the Turk play full games, such as it had in Europe, than just the endgames. On October 16, 1826 the Turk gave its first full game demonstration. Schlumberger had undergone a four day crash course in the operation of the Turk. It's not surprising the he lost a game that day to "a mere youth." However, Maelzel was less forgiving the following week when Schlumberger lost a game to Dr. Benjamin Greene. While Maelzel specifically announced during his opening speech that the Turk was not invincible, he considered losing the next worst thing after having its secret uncovered. In all the cities they played - New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, Washington, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Pittsburg, Havana - Schlumberger seldom lost whether playing as the Turk or as himself.

the above picture is a low-res facimile of a digital scan found at American Memory 

 Johann Nepomuk Maelzel
     On November 9, 1837, Schlumberger sailed with Maelzel to  Havana, Cuba. While there he contracted Yellow Fever and died in April of 1838.

     Maelzel himself died of the same disease while sailing back to Philadelphia and died off the coast of Charleston on July 21, 1838.

     There is no real account detailing Schlumberger's death, but Maezel's own death a couple month's later was described very well by Prof. Geo. Allen on pages 473-4 in Fiske's book of the First American Chess Congress :

     Maelzel's preparations had been completed in time to enable him to take passage on board a vessel of Mr. Ohl's—the brig Olis, commanded by his friend, Capt. Nobre—which had arrived in the port of Havana about the first of July. The vessel started on her return-voyage on Saturday, the 14th of the same month. When Maelzel came on board, with the other passengers, Capt. Nobre was struck by the remarkable change, which had taken place in his appearance, since he had seen him with Schlumberger only three months before, in April. At that time not the slightest sign of wearing disease or natural decay could be seen: he was as stout and florid, as active and as lively, as he had been twelve years before, when he landed at New York, still a young man at the age of fifty-three. But now it was evident that he was " breaking up"—that all the powers of mind and body were rapidly sinking, as though the source from which they had derived their strength had been suddenly withdrawn. He sat on the deck, with a little travelling chess-board in his hand *, clinging with the last exertion of his faculties to his favorite game.

     As soon as the brig had cleared the harbor, and the captain had become at liberty, Maelzel produced his board and invited him to play. They sat down, in view of the Moro Castle, and played two games. The weakness of Maelzel's play, Compared with his former strength, was a further evidence of his rapid decay. He won the first game, to be sure—for his antagonist had no . great skill—but his strength did not sustain him equally for a second. The position came to be one not much unlike the favorite one of the Automaton—three Pawns against three Pawns.

     Capt. Nobre, who had the move, was dimly aware, that all depended upon which Pawn he should push first, and asked his skilful adversary, as a known master in end-games, to advise him. Maelzel, usually so courteous and so obliging, answered, with a little of the sick man's peevishness, "You must play your own game—I cannot tell you what to move."  Capt. Nobre, being thus thrown upon his own resources, meditated his move well, pushed the right Pawn, and won.* After dining—or attempting to dine—with the rest of the passengers, Maelzel took to his berth, and never left it again. He had brought on board with him a case of claret wine. This he made the steward place on the edge of his berth, that it might be always within his reach; and so long as his strength lasted he might be seen, from time to time, raising the bottle itself, with weak and trembling hands, to his lips—for it was impossible for him, in such a condition, to make use of a glass. He asked for nothing, received nothing, and said nothing. It was evident, that he was perfectly aware of his real situation; but whether he saw all as a blank before him, or whether he turned back in mind and heart to the Christian hope, whereto he had been made heir in that sacred edifice of pious Ratisbon, in which the music of his father's organ was wont to rise with the incense of the Holy Sacrifice—in either case he made no sign. For six days he continued in this state, with little appearance of change; but on the evening of Friday, as the vessel entered upon the shoals off the North American coast, the captain perceived that he began to sink rapidly; and early on Saturday morning, the 21st of July, he was found dead in his berth. With no other rites, than fastening a four-pound shot to the feet, the body was launched into the deep. The brig was at that moment off Charleston. Capt, Nobre went through the remaining duties, which were devolved upon him by the occasion. He caused the trunks of the deceased to be opened, and the contents to be inventoried, in the presence of the passengers. Twelve gold doubloons—and these, too, advanced to him by Mr. Ohl's correspondent, Mr. Francisco Alvarez—constituted all that remained of the treasures of Maelzel One article only of some interest was found—the gold medal, by Loos, which had been presented to the great mechanician by the King of Prussia.**

* Dr. S. W. Mitchell has in his possession a very small inlaid marine chess-board, which there is reason to think was that on which Maelzel played these hiis last games.

** This medal, after passing through several hands, was finally sold to the United States Mint, and, instead of being added to the very rich collection of coins and medals, there deposited, was barbarously melted down. Although not unique, it deserved a better fate, as well for the sake of the great artist who made it, as for its association with Maelzel 


     On  the corner of Fifth St. and St. James St.,  in Philadelphia you can find this commemorative historical marker

"German-born inventor and showman; exhibited nearby at Maelzel’s Hall, 1826-1831, assisted by Wm. Schlumberger. His Automaton Chess Player (The Turk) was famous for games with Franklin & Napoleon. He patented a metronome; made hearing aids for Beethoven. "