The Automaton by John Timbs 1860

Jan 25, 2009, 12:45 PM |

1860. pp. 86-92


We have reserved for a separate chapter the origin and history of this marvelous contrivance, which, at various periods during the lapse of ninety years, has astonished and delighted the scientific world in several cities of Europe and North America. Its machinery has been variously explained. It was constructed in 1769 by M. de Kempelen, a gentleman of Presburg, in Hungary, long distinguished for his skill in mechanics. The Chess-player is a life-sized figure, clothed in a Turkish dress, sitting behind a large chest, three and a half feet long, two feet deep, and two and a half feet high. The player sits on a chair fixed to the chest, and in the left he holds a pipe, which is removed during the game, as it is with this hand that he makes the moves. A chess-board, with the pieces, is placed before the figure. The exhibitor opens the doors of the chest, and shows the interior, with its cylinders, levers, wheels, pinions, and other pieces of machinery, which have the appearance of occupying the whole space. This machinery being wound up, the Automaton is ready to play; and when an opponent has been found, the figure takes the first move, moves its head, and seems to look over every part of the chess-board. When it gives check to its opponent it shakes its head thrice, and only twice when it checks the queen. It likewise shakes its head when a false move is made, replaces the adversary's piece on the square from which it was taken, and takes the next move itself. In general, though not always, the Automaton wins the game. During its progress, the exhibitor often stood near the machine, and wound it up like a clock after it had made ten or twelve moves. At other times he went to a corner of the room, as if it were to consult a small square box, which stood open for this purpose.

The earliest English account of the Automaton Chess-player that we can find is in a letter from the Rev. Mr. Dutens to the Gentleman's Magazine, dated Presburg, January 24, 1771. The writer formed an acquaintance with the inventor, whom he terms M. de Kempett (not Kempelen), an Aulic counselor, and director general of the salt mines in Hungary. Mr. Dutens played a game at chess with the Automaton at Presburg; the English ambassador, Prince Giustiniani, and several English lords, standing round the table.

"They all," according to Mr. Dutens, "had their eyes on M. de Kempett, who stood by the table, or sometimes removed five or six feet from it, yet not one of them could discover the least motion in him that could influence the Automaton..... He also withdraws to any distance you please, and lets the figure play four or five moves successively without approaching it. The marvelous in this Automaton consists chiefly in this, that it has not (as in others, the most celebrated machines of this sort) one determined set of movements, but that it always moves in consequence of the manner in which its opponent moves, which produces an amazing multitude of different combinations in its movements. M. de Kempett winds up from time to time the springs of the arms of this automaton, in order to renew its motive force; but this, you will observe, has no relation to its guiding force or power of direction, which makes the great merit of this machine. In general, I am of the opinion that the contriver influences the direction of almost every stroke played by the Automaton, although, as I have said, I have sometimes seen him leave it to itself for many moves together, which, in my opinion, is the most difficult circumstance of all to comprehend in what regards this machine."

Mr. Staunton, the celebrated chess-player, states that De Kempelen constructed the Automaton "merely to afford a passing amusement to the Empress Maria Teresa and her court." Upon its completion, it was exhibited at Presburg and Vienna; in 1783, in Paris; and in that and the following year in London and different parts of England, without the secret of its movements having been discovered. "It was subsequently," says Mr. Staunton, "taken, by special invitation of the emperor, to the court of Frederick the Great at Berlin. This prince was devotedly attached to chess; and in a moment of liberality, he proffered an enormous sum for the purchase of the Automaton and its secret. The offer was accepted, and in a private interview with De Kempelen, he was furnished with a key to the mystery. In a short time, however, Frederick threw aside the novelty so dearly bought, and for many years it lay forgotten and neglected among the lumber of his palace.

"M. Kempelen died in 1804; but in two years after, when Napoleon I. occupied Berlin, we find the Chess Automaton in the field again under a new master. On one occasion of its exhibition at this period, Napoleon himself is said to have entered the lists. After some half dozen moves, he purposely made a false move; the figure inclined its head, replaced the piece, and made a sign for Napoleon to play again. Presently he again played falsely: this time the Automaton removed the offending piece from the board, and played its own move. Napoleon was delighted; and, to put the patience of his taciturn opponent to a severer test, he once more played incorrectly, upon which the Automaton raised its arm, and, sweeping the pieces from the board, declined to continue the game."


After a second tour of the leading cities of Europe, where it was received with unabated enthusiasm, in 1819 the Automaton was again established in London, under M. Maelzel. For some years it was exhibited in Canada and the United States, and was finally understood to have returned to New York, where it was shown in the autumn of 1845.

Meanwhile there were various attempts made to discover the secret. The ingenious inventor never pretended that the Automaton itself really played the game; on the contrary, he distinctly stated that "the machine was a bagatelle, which was not without merit in point of mechanism, but that the effects of it appeared so marvelous only from the boldness of the conception, and the fortunate choice of the methods adopted for promoting the illusion." It was surmised that the game was played either by a person inclosed in the chest, or by the exhibitor himself; yet the chest, being nearly filled with machinery, did not appear capable of accommodating even a dwarf; nor could any mechanical communication between the exhibitor and the figure be detected. It was then thought to be influenced by a magnet, which the exhibitor disproved by placing a strong and well-armed loadstone upon the machine during the game, which did not affect the moving power. The original conjecture, that the player was concealed in the interior, was then revived; and in 1789, Mr. J.F. Freyhere, of Dresden, published a pamphlet, in which he endeavored to explain by colored plates how the effect was produced; and he concluded "that a well-taught boy, very thin and tall of his age (sufficiently so that he could be concealed in a drawer almost immediately under the chess-board), agitated the whole."

In an earlier pamphlet, published in Paris in 1785, the writer supposed the machine was put in motion by a dwarf, a famous chess-player, his legs and thighs being concealed in two hollow cylinders, while the rest of his body was out of the box, and hidden by the robes of the figure.

Sir David Brewster, in his Natural Magic, describes the secret as shown in a pamphlet published anonymously, and the machine to be capable of accommodating an ordinarily-sized man; and he explains, in the clearest manner, how "the inclosed player takes all the different positions, and performs all the motions which are necessary to produce the effects actually observed." Sir David devotes eight pages of his work, with illustrative wood-cuts, to this explanation, and endeavors to show how the real player may be concealed in the chest, and partly in the figure: "as his head is above the chess-board, he will see through the waistcoat of the figure, as easily as through a veil, the whole of the pieces on the board; and he can easily take up and put down a chess-man without any other mechanism than that of a string communicating with the finger of the left hand of the figure," the right hand being within the chest, to keep in motion the wheel-work for producing the noise heard during the moves, and to move the head, tap the chest, etc.

Mr. Staunton also maintains that the chess-player who directed the Automaton was really hidden in the interior; that the machinery so ostentatiously exhibited was a sham, yet so contrived that it would collapse or expand, to suit the exigencies of the hidden agent's various positions; while the chest was exhibited, he was in the figure, and when the figure, he was in the chest. While conducting a game, he sat at the bottom of the chest, with a small pegged chess-board and men on his lap, and a lighted taper affixed, within reach were a handle by which he could guide the arm of the Automaton, an elastic spring for moving its fingers, and cord in communication with bellows for producing the sound of "Check." The most ingenious part of the contrivance remains to be told. M. Mouret, the celebrated chess-player, who directed the movements of the Automaton for some years, states that the concealed player was seated immediately under the chess-board of the Automaton, and from the under side, at every one of the sixty-four squares, was suspended by the finest silk a tiny metallic ball; and as each of the chess-men had a magnet inside, when it was placed upon a square, it drew up the ball beneath, while the balls beneath the other squares remained suspended. The pieces being arranged, the Automaton opened the game; and turning the handle of the arm of the figure, and putting in motion the finger-springs, he caused it to take up the piece to be played, which was indicated by the falling ball, and when it was placed upon a square, the ball was drawn up. He then repeated the move on the small board in his lap, and thus the game proceeded.

Thus the explanation rested until the publication of the Memoirs of Robert Houdin, who therein relates the origin and construction of the Automaton Chess-player in substance as follows:

In 1769 there fell, fighting in a revolt at Riga, an officer named Worousky, a man of great talent and energy, of short stature, but well built. He had both thighs shattered by a cannon ball, but escaped by throwing himself into a hedge behind a ditch. At nightfall, Worousky dragged himself along, with great difficulty, to the adjacent house of Osloff, a physician, whose benevolence was well known; and the doctor, moved by his sufferings, attended upon and promised to conceal him. His wound was serious, gangrene set in, and his life could only be saved at the cost of half his body. The amputation was successful, and Worousky saved.

Meanwhile, M. de Kempelen, the celebrated mechanician, came to Riga to visit M. Osloff, who confided to him his secret of concealing Worousky, and begged his aid. Though startled at the request--for he knew that a reward was offered for the insurgent chief, and that the act of humanity he was about to assist in might send him to Siberia--still, M. de Kempelen, on seeing Worousky's mutilated body, felt moved with compassion, and began contriving some plan to secure his escape.

Dr. Osloff was a passionate lover of chess, and had played numerous games with his patient during his tardy convalescence; but Worousky was so strong at the game that the doctor was always defeated. Then Kempelen joined the doctor in trying to defeat the skillful player, but it was of no use; Worousky was always the conqueror. His superiority gave M. de Kempelen the idea of his famous Automaton Chess-player. In an instant his plan was formed, and he set to work immediately; and the most remarkable circumstance is, that this wonderful chef-d'oeuvre, which astonished the whole world, was finished within three months.

M. de Kempelen was anxious that his host should make the first trial of his Automaton; so he invited him to play a game on the 10th of October, 1769. The Automaton represented a Turk of the natural size, wearing the national costume, and seated behind a box of the shape of a chest of drawers. In the middle of the top of the box was a chess-board, with the pieces, for play.

Prior to commencing the game, the artist opened several doors in the chest, and M. Osloff could see inside a number of wheels, pulleys, cylinders, springs, etc., occupying the larger part. At the same time he opened a long drawer, from which he produced the chess-men and a cushion, on which the Turk was to rest his arm. This examination ended, the robe of the Automaton was raised, and the interior of the body could also be inspected.

The doors being then closed, M. de Kempelen wound up one of the wheels with a key which he inserted in a hole in the chest; after which the Turk, with a gentle nod of salutation, placed his hand on one of the pieces, raised it, deposited it on another square, and laid his arm on the cushion before him. The inventor had stated that, as the Automaton could not speak, it would signify check to the king by three nods, and to the queen by two.

The doctor moved in his turn, and waited patiently till his adversary, whose movements had all the dignity of the Sultan, had moved. The game, though slow at first, soon grew animated, and the doctor found he had to deal with a tremendous opponent; for, in spite of all his efforts to defeat the figure, the game was growing quite desperate. It is true, though, that for some minutes past the doctor's attention had appeared to be distracted, and one idea seemed to occupy him. But, while hesitating whether he should impart his thoughts to his friend, the figure gave three nods. The game was over.

"By Jove!" the loser said, with a tinge of vexation, which the sight of the inventor's smiling face soon dispelled, "if I were not certain that Worousky is at this moment in bed, I should believe I had been playing with him. His head alone is capable of inventing such a checkmate. And besides," the doctor said, looking fixedly at M. de Kempelen, "can you tell me why your Automaton plays with the left hand, just like Worousky?" (The Automaton Chess-player always used the left hand--a defect falsely attributed to the carelessness of the constructor.)

The mechanician began laughing, and at length confessed to his friend that he had really been playing with Worousky.

"But where the deuce have you put him, then?" the doctor said, looking round to try and discover his opponent.

The inventor laughed heartily.

"Well, do you not recognize me?" the Turk exclaimed, holding out his left hand to the doctor in reconciliation, while Kempelen raised the robe and displayed the poor cripple stowed away in the body of the Automaton.

M. Osloff could no longer keep his countenance, and he joined the others in the laughter. But he was the first to stop, for he wanted an explanation.

"But how do you manage to render Worousky invisible?"

M. de Kempelen then explained how he concealed the living automaton before it entered the Turk's body.

"See here," he said, opening the chest; "these wheels, pulleys and cranks, occupying a portion of the chest, are only a deception. The frames that support them are hung on hinges, and can be turned back to leave space for the player, while you were examining the body of the Automaton.

"When this inspection was ended, and as soon as the robe was allowed to fall, Worousky entered the Turk's body we have just examined, and, while I was showing you the box and machinery, he was taking his time to pass his arms and hands into those of the figure. You can understand that, owing to the size of the neck, which is hidden by the broad and enormous collar, he can easily pass his head into this mask, and see the chess-board. I must add, that when I pretend to wind up the machine, it is only to drown the sound of Worousky's movements."

M. Houdin relates that the mutilated Pole once had the audacity, in his clockwork case, to visit St. Petersburg, and play a game of chess with the Empress Catharine, against whom he had revolted.

It is hard to reconcile these conflicting statements, unless, having allowed Houdin's account of the origin of the Automaton to be correct, we consider the other narratives to explain the modes by which the Automaton was worked after Worousky had ceased to be the prime mover of this extraordinary deception.

Substitutes for the natural limbs have been constructed with great success. In 1845, Magendie described to the French Academy a pair of artificial arms, the invention of M. Van Petersen, with one of which a mutilated soldier raised a full glass to his mouth, and drank its contents without spilling a drop of the liquor; he also picked up a pin, a sheet of paper, etc. Each arm and hand, with its articulations, weighs less than a pound; and a sort of stays is fixed round the person, and from these are cords made of catgut, which act upon the articulations, according to the motion given to the natural stump.