THE AUTOMATON CHESS-PLAYER - Cornhill Magazine

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Jan 28, 2009, 1:46 PM |
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from The Cornhill Magazine  edited by George Smith and William Makepeace Thackeray

July, 1885

THE AUTOMATON CHESS-PLAYER.

Several years ago an automaton chess-player was exhibited at the Crystal Palace for some time. But the Turk was not a player de la premiere force, for the writer, although not boasting any particular proficiency in the game, won with ease the only partie he contested with him. The mechanism, too, of the android was decidedly inferior to the one invented by Von Kempelen about the middle of the eighteenth century. In fact, in the case of the automaton at Sydenham, it was tolerably obvious in what part of the figure the chess-player was concealed who conducted the games.

The original automaton, on the other hand, was not only seldom beaten, but so remarkable was the ingenuity displayed in its construction that notwithstanding many attempts from time to time were made to find out the principle of its mechanism, not one of the explanations offered of the puzzle proved to be the correct one. Indeed, the secret was so well kept that it was not until the automaton had been in existence for upwards of half a century that a solution of the problem was given to the public. In 1834, however, one Mouret, a skillful chess-player who some years previously had been in the employment of the proprietor of the exhibition, sold the ' secret of his prison house.' On information furnished by him was based an article entitled "Automate Joueur d'Echecs" in the Magazin Pittoresque for 1834. In that contribution a full description of the mechanism of the android was given.

It does not come within the scope of this paper to reproduce that statement in extenso here, the object of the writer being, primarily, to furnish a brief account of the career of the automaton and to give some anecdotes connected with its adventures in various countries. But before doing this, it will not be altogether superfluous to furnish some particulars with respect to the inventor of the android, and to describe briefly the ingenious and successful attempts made by him to prevent any discovery of the place of concealment of the person who directed the moves of the Turk.

Wolfgang, Baron von Kempelen, the inventor of the automaton, was born in Hungary about the year 1723. He was an Aulic Councillor of the Royal Chamber of the Hungarian States; a man of extraordinary mechanical ability, a good naturalist, and an excellent artist. In 1769, when at Vienna on official business, he, during his intervals of leisure, constructed the mechanical chess-player which was destined to render him famous.

The automaton consisted of a chest or box, upon which was seated the figure of a Turk. The chest was three feet and a-half long, two feet broad, and two and a-half feet high, placed on casters, which enabled the exhibitor to move it occasionally from one part of an apartment to another. The object of this arrangement was to show to the spectators that no trap-door communicated with the chest. The left arm of the Turk was hollow, and through it a wire ran which communicated with the interior of the chest, where, by means of a lever, the operator concealed within it was enabled to give every desired motion to the arm, hand, and fingers of the figure.

The chest was divided into two compartments above and a drawer beneath. In the smaller of the two compartments, occupying about the third of the longitudinal dimensions of the chest, were placed a number of pieces of brass, made very thin, and designed only for the purpose of misleading the spectators, for they were no part of the machinery by which the moves of the game were effected. In the other compartment were also similar pieces of brass, representing quadrants and other philosophical instruments, intended, as in the previous instance, to give the impression that they conduced to the working of the automaton. The two compartments communicated with each other by means of a sliding panel, but so carefully was it contrived that the partition had the appearance of being immovable. The drawer, which when drawn out seemed to be the entire horizontal dimensions of the chest, was deceptive, as it was so constructed that it could not be pressed back more than a foot and a half, whilst by a species of telescopic arrangement of the sides of the drawer, it had, when pulled out, the appearance of being quite two feet six inches in depth. Behind this movable back of the drawer there was consequently an unoccupied space left which extended the whole length of the chest, and was more than a foot in breadth.

At the commencement of the exhibition, on every occasion, the operator of the automaton sat behind the mock machinery of the smaller of the two upper compartments of the chest, his legs occupying the hidden portion of the drawer. Then the front doors of both apartments were opened at the same time; alighted candle was placed in the larger one, so that it could be distinctly seen that the space not occupied by the quadrants and other instruments was vacant. Another candle was placed, not in, but in front of, the other apartment, which was apparently completely filled with machinery. Next, after closing the doors the exhibitor turned the automaton round, so as to show the back of the chest to the spectators. While this was being done, the concealed operator moved into the large compartment, closing after him the sliding panel. In this position he remained until the back door of the small compartment had been opened and shut again.

Thus by these ingenious contrivances the spectators were led to believe that it was quite impossible that anyone could be hidden in the chest. As regards the Turk, seated cross-legged on the box, it was perfectly obvious that, putting aside the fact that his body was shown to be occupied by machinery, the figure was not large enough to hold a human being.

When the doors of the automaton had been closed, the operator began to make his arrangements for the game. This he did by swinging the whole furniture of the interior of the chest—wheels, machinery, and partition—against the outer doors and walls of the box, so as to throw all the subdivided compartments into one apartment. By this means he had room enough to seat himself comfortably before the chess board on which he played. The moves of the adversary of the Turk, when made on the board before the figure, were communicated to the occupant of the chest by means of wires connected with a number of discs inserted in the top of the apartment, and directly any one of the pieces on the Turk's board was touched the fact was indicated by the corresponding disc being put in motion. The concealed chess-player reproduced his opponent's moves on his own board, and when he was ready to reply to them he made use of the left arm of the figure for that purpose, as already stated.

The automaton was exhibited in Vienna for some months, attracting a crowd of savants from all parts of the empire. From the capital, Von Kempelen removed the android to Presburg, where it remained for a considerable period. Finally, the scientific and mechanical pursuits of the Baron having made sad inroads upon his patrimony, he set out on a tour through Europe with the object of endeavouring to retrieve his impaired fortunes by giving exhibitions of his curious invention in the principal cities on the Continent.

Before starting on his travels. Von Kempelen engaged the services of the most skillful chess-player he could find to operate the android. To secure, too, the Turk, so far as practicable, from all hazard of defeat at the hands of more able adversaries, endings of games only were usually played, under the pretext that complete games would occupy too much time. A book, containing a series of end-games, was always handed to the opponents of the automaton, and they were allowed their choice of the white or black pieces. Nothing, in appearance, could be fairer than this; but, as a matter of fact, the positions were so contrived that whosoever took the first move—which the Turk invariably claimed —had a forced-won game. However, it was not, on all occasions, possible for Von Kempelen, without discourtesy, to refuse to permit the automaton to play entire games with some of the adversaries who presented themselves. Consequently the Turk was sometimes beaten. In 1783, at the Cafe de la Regence, at Paris, he encountered Philidor and Legal, being vanquished by them both. From Paris Von Kempelen went to Berlin, where the android played with Frederick the Great, who was compelled to succumb to his prowess. It has been stated that the king bought the automaton in 1785, but this is an error, for Von Kempelen died withit in his own possession in 1804. It is possible that the secret of the invention may have been sold to Frederick, but even that is doubtful. Directly after the death of Von Kempelen his son disposed of the automaton to one Maelzel, ' Mechanician to the Court' (Hof-Mechanikus) at Berlin, who occasionally exhibited it. In 1809, Maelzel was occupying some portion of the Palace of Schonbrun, when Napoleon made this building headquarters after the battle of Wagram. It was there that the automaton played with the Emperor the historic game of chess, the particulars of which—if Maelzel's own account of the occurrence maybe accepted—have been not a little distorted and embellished by the various narrators of the incident. The real facts seem to have been as follows: In Von Kempelen's days the antagonist of the Turk had played upon the board in front of the figure, but Maelzel always placed a table, withanother chessboard, a few paces from the automaton, with the object—as was asserted—not to intercept the view of the spectators. Maelzel therefore was constantly passing between the Turk and his adversary's table to repeat each move on the board of the other party. The space occupied by the automaton was separated from the rest of the apartment by a silken cord. When Napolegn evinced an intention of passing the barrier, Maelzel checked him with "Sire, il eat defendu depasser outre." The Emperor at once acquiesced, with a good-natured 'Eh Men!' and took his seat at the little table on his side of the cord. It has been asserted that Napoleon, overstepping the barrier, struck his hand on the automaton's chessboard, and exclaimed, "I will not contend at a distance. We fight face to face."  Also, that he placed a large magnet on the board to see if it would have the effect of disarranging the machinery. Neither of these statements is correct. In fact, on this occasion, the conduct of the Emperor was perfectly free from the brusquerie which has been attributed to him. Napoleon, who was a poor player, quickly lost the game. He then challenged the automaton to a second encounter. In the course of the game he purposely made a false move; the Turk bowed gravely, and replaced the piece on its proper square. A few moments later the Emperor repeated his manoeuvre and with a similar result. But when the same thing occurred a third time, his opponent swept the whole of the chessmen off the board. Napoleon, however, instead of being irritated by this treatment, only laughed, saying "C'est juste!" He added, too, a quasi apology for the violation of the laws of the game of which he had been guilty, by alleging that it had arisen from his desire to learn what course the automaton would pursue in the event of so unexpected a contingency presenting itself. Allgaier—the inventor of the gambit named after him—is believed to have been the player who had the temerity to inflict so merited a rebuke upon the ' Victor of a hundred battles.'

About two years later, Eugene Beauharnais, then Viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy, witnessed an exhibition of the automaton at Milan. His curiosity was so great to penetrate the mystery of the Turk, that he bought of Maelzel both the android and the secret of its mechanism for thirty thousand francs. The Prince, however, soon tired of his purchase, and the automaton, relegated to a lumber-room, remained for the succeeding four or five years in inglorious retirement.

In 1817 Maelzel, who, at this period, had settled down in Paris as a manufacturer of philosophical instruments, proposed to Eugene Beauharnais to buy back the automaton from him for the Fame price which had been paid for it. This offer was accepted, and, as Maelzel was not able to pay the whole purchase-money in one sum, it was stipulated that the debt should be liquidated by instalments, out of the proceeds arising from exhibiting the android.

In conformity with this arrangement, the Turk once more set out on his travels. He visited this country in 1818. Whilst in London he measured himself against the leading chess-players of the day, being usually, but by no means invariably, victorious in these encounters. Returning to the Continent in 1820, Maelzel continued to give exhibitions of the automaton for several successive years, but with only indifferent success. Finally, he conceived the project of trying his fortunes in the New World.

Maelzel, having failed to meet the instalments of the debt payable to the heirs of Eugene Beauharnais (the Prince had died in 1824) as they came due, was in danger of being arrested by his creditors, and his proposed journey prevented. He, therefore, left Paris, suddenly, without waiting to make arrangements with any skillfulchess-player to accompany him, contenting himself with leaving instructions with a friend to send one out to him as soon as practicable.

Maelzel sailed from Havre on the 20thof December, 1825, for New York taking with him, besides the automaton, a fantoccino of his own invention, consisting of mechanical rope-dancers. He arrived at his destination on the 3rd of February, 1826, and after waiting in vain two months for the chess-player he was expecting, he opened his exhibition without him. He confided the duty of operating the android to a Frenchwoman, the wife of a man who guided the motions of the puppets. She was faithful to the trust reposed in her, and her conduct in this respect offered a practical refutation to the cynical proverb that ' a woman cannot keep a secret.' Only few persons attended the first exhibition of the automaton, but their report of the performance was so favourable that the rooms where it took place were soon crowded night after night.

End-games only were played until the arrival of the long- expected chess-player, who only reached New York on the 27th of September. This gentleman, an Alsatian, of the name of Schlumberger, was an exceptionally strong player, and could be with safety relied upon to beat the best amateurs that New York, or any other city in the Union, could then boast. Consequently, during the tour of the Turk through the United States he was almost invariably victorious. :

When Maelzel was in Baltimore, by a curious accident a discovery was made of the fact that some one was concealed in the automaton. The affair happened in this wise : One day two lads mounted upon the roof of a shed commanding a view of the back room to which the Turk retired when the exhibition was over. On this occasion Maelzel, directly the audience had dispersed, rolled the android behind the curtain. Intent only upon relieving his ally from his irksome confinement—for the heat in that southern city is in summer well-nigh intolerable—Maelzel stepped to the window, threw the shutters wide open, and then, returning to the automaton, he removed the top of the chest. From this hiding- place there emerged, in full sight of the youths, the figure of a man in his shirt-sleeves, whom there was no difficulty in recognizing as Schlumberger. To be the depositaries of so important a secret was a burden under which their strength gave way; and the story, confided in the first instance to their respective parents, soon spread and reached the public. But the tale obtained very little credence. The general opinion was that a secret which had baffled for upwards of half a century the best mechanicians and mathematicians of the age was something altogether too deep to be penetrated by a couple of schoolboys.

This danger, therefore, Maelzel safely tided over; but not long afterwards a more serious one presented itself. One day a young man of the name of Walker called upon him in New York and said,' Mr. Maelzel, would you like to buy another chess-player ? I have one ready made for you.' Surely enough, this was the case. Maelzel saw the automaton in question, and made the inventor an offer of one thousand dollars for it; for, although the mechanism of the machine was very different from that of the original, there seemed to be some likelihood of its competing injuriously with his own. The offer, however, was declined by the owner of the new android, who proceeded to exhibit it on his own account. In this he was unsuccessful, for there existed in the community a deeply-rooted prejudice in favour of the historical invention of Von Kempelen, which gave Maelzel a vantage-ground from which no efforts of rival exhibitors could easily have driven him.

The automaton consequently remained as profitable a property to its owner as ever, and Maelzel continued to travel with it in the United States, Mexico, and the West Indies until 1837. In that year he died on his passage from Havana to Philadelphia. Notwithstanding the large sums he had realised during the eleven years he had successfully exhibited not only the chess-player but a panorama of the Conflagration of Moscow, he died poor and in debt.

A short time after Maelzel's deathhis effects were sold at auction in Philadelphia. The automaton was the first lot put up, and was knocked down to a bid of four hundred dollars only. Undoubtedly the purchaser was under the impression that before long he should meet with some enterprising entrepreneur willing to give him a considerably higher price for the android than he had paid for it. But he was mistaken, and, more than a year having elapsed without a single offer being made for the automaton, the owner was glad to dispose of it for the same sum as that for which he himself had bought it. The purchaser was a Dr. Mitchell, and his idea was to constitute the Turk the property of a club. Each member was to subscribe ten dollars, and thereby become a joint owner of the automaton and a joint depositary of its secret—when discovered. The plan was carried out withsuccess; the machine was unpacked, and, with some difficulty, its disjecta membra put together. Private exhibitions to the families of the shareholders and their friends followed. Becoming tired of giving these, the question arose what disposition to make of the property. Such interest as had been re-excited in the automaton after Maelzel's death had been confined to a narrow circle; it had not sufficed to create a demand on the part of the community for public exhibitions, nor to elicit an offer for it from any speculative showman.

Finally, the automaton was deposited in the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia, where it occupied a recess in a small room in a part of the building but little frequented by visitors. In this position few persons inquired for, few even saw, the once famous invention, and the latter days of the veteran chess-player were spent in complete obscurity.

Fourteen years later the end of the Turk came. On the 5th of July, 1854, a fire broke out in the National Theatre, which extended to the Museum, which was separated from it by only a narrow alley. There was ample time to have rescued the automaton, if any one had thought of doing so. But so entirely had all interest in it died out that not only was no effort made to save it, but its fate attracted no notice whatsoever. In fact, the Philadelphia press, whilst giving full details in other respects of the loss of property caused by the conflagration, did not devote even, one brief paragraph to chronicle the destruction of a piece of mechanism which for originality of conception and ingenuity of execution has never been excelled.