The Last of a Veteran Chess Player - The Turk
This article is among the most important and least accessible treatises on the Turk. Written by the son (with apparent input from the father) of the last owner of the automaton, the perspective is both unique and relevant.
THE LAST OF A VETERAN CHESS PLAYER.
by Silas Weir Mitchell, son of John Kearsley Mitchell
One of the most famous personages of the last hundred years has passed away, and it would, indeed, be neglectful to omit some notice of one whose long life has been a series of such strange vicissitudes and changing fortunes. A constitution of iron enabled him to endure with patience long voyages, changing climates, and many sad reverses. His paradoxical existence has at last come to a close, and we are now called upon to allude to the incidents of a career more than usually eventful.
The subject of our sketch was born of reputable parentage, about the close of the year 1769, in the city of Presburg, in Hungary. If he ever had a mother, history has failed to record her name. His paternal relative was a Hungarian official of good birth and fair character. Although himself a Christian, he had the singular caprice of clothing his child in oriental attire, and even obliged him to wear, during his whole life, the outward emblems of the creed of Mahomet From his earliest years the lamented departed wore a look of solemn gravity He never smiled, and was rarely heard to speak. Though compelled, by circumstances of primitive formation, to remain seated during many long years, and though gifted by illiberal Nature with the use of but one arm, he exhibited signs of a clear and precocious intellect. It is, however, but little to his credit, that he beat his father before he was six months old, and not long after, waged successful war against his legitimate sovereign, the Empress Maria Theresa. Later in life, he was the friend of Franklin, the opponent of George the Third, and Louis the XV.—the slave of Eugene de Beauharnais—the conqueror of Napoleon—the favorite of Frederick the Great, and the Grand Turk—to-day a pet of aristocratic circles—to-morrow the denizen of a garret. In the course of his long and industrious life, he accumulated a large estate, which he survived to see wasted by the extravagance of another. he perished, at last, like St. Laurence, amid devouring flames, shedding no tears, and meeting his fate with the tranquil resignation of a man in a box, with anchylosis of both inferior extremities. As a republican, he must undoubtly claim our respect, since, perhaps, no other man has ever checked the march of so many kings as he.
The writer of this sketch was near the deceased at the time of his death. It was in Philadelphia, on the night of the 5th of July, 1854, about half-past ten o'clock. The east roof of the National Theatre was a mass of whirling flames. The front of the Girard House was on fire. A dozen dwellings were blazing fiercely, and the smoke and flame were already curling in eddies about the roof, and through the windows of the well known Chinese Museum. At the eastern end of this building, nearest to the fire, our friend had dwelt for many years. Struggling through the dense crowd, we entered the lower hall, and passing to the far end, reached the foot of a small back stair case. The landing above us was concealed by a curtain of thick smoke, now and then alive, as it were, with quick tongues of writhing flame. To ascend was impossible. Already the fire was about him. Death found him tranquil. He who had seen Moscow perish, knew no fear of fire. We listened with painful anxiety. It might have been a sound from the crackling wood-work, or the breaking window-panes, but, certain it is, that we thought we heard, through the struggling flames, and above the, din of outside thousands, the last words of our departed friend, the sternly whispered, oft-repeated syllables, Échec! Échec!
If, gentle reader, you are above the age of twenty years, you will remember amidst your early reminiscences, the far-famed Maelzel's exhibition. There is a long row of wide-awake little faces on the front bench. The wild eyes of childhood are watching the nimble puppets. A paynim-puppet cuts deftly off a puppet's head, and tiny tumblers leap and bound, and Lilliputians ride more desperately than bigger men, and fight and quarrel in similar fashion. You will remember, also, the little oyster woman, with her sugar bivalves, which none but the little girls got ; and how you wished you too were a girl for the nonce, all for the love of sugar-oysters. Then Moscow burned for the thousandth time, and while Napoleon fled and Frank and Cossack rode and ran, you avowed to your big brother that it was great fun, and you'd just like to come every night, always. And then those babies, whose squeezed stomachs gutturally groaned mama, papa, you can buy them in any toy-shop now-a-days. That stalwart trumpeter, so gifted with unbounded lungs, we shall not soon forget him ; and last, and, perhaps, least for you, that joy of your elders—the Automaton Chess-player, the Turk—even he, with his oriental silence and rolling eyes, would haunt your nightly visions for many an evening after. Since then we have known him better, and we confess to this day a certain mysterious awe of his eternal cross-leggedness, his turbaned front, and left-handed activity.
It is our intention to record as briefly as possible, the incidents of the Turk's career, touching both lightly and briefly on the better known points. Perhaps no secret was ever kept as the Turk's has been. Guessed at, in part, many times, no one of the several explanations in our possession has ever practically solved this amusing puzzle. For several years the Turk was owned by a company of Philadelphia gentlemen. All of them were aware of the secret. It was, however, a self-guarded trust, since few who had seen the interior arrangements of the automaton would have been able to expound his puzzling anatomy. Half in jest, then, and partly from the above named consideration, the secret has keen kept. There are no longer any reasons for concealing from the amateurs of chess the solution of this ancient enigma. Wolfgang, Baron von Kempelen, the inventor of the automaton chess-player, 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. A pamphlet by K. G. von Windisch, Basle, 1783, gives the best account of him. He seems to have devoted a lifetime to mechanics. Among the fruits of his skill were the Cascades at the Castle of Schönbrunn, and an automaton which pronounced some thirty words and a few phrases.
In the year 1769, while at Vienna on official business, von Kempelen was present at an exhibition of magnetic experiments by one Pelletier, a Frenchman. The Empress Maria Theresa was also present. In conversation with her majesty, Kempelen intimated that he could make a machine whose results would be more surprising than those which they were then witnessing. The curiosity of the Empress was excited, and at her request the councillor constructed, some six months after, the well known Automaton Chess-player.
The automaton made his début at Vienna in the Imperial presence. Thence von Kempelen removed it to Presburgh, his residence, where for some time he amused his leisure with its exhibition to a crowd of savans, who flocked from far and near to view the wonder. At the present day it is difficult to conceive of the eager curiosity with which the Turk was everywhere greeted—and it is to be remembered, that at this early period his performances were regarded as the bonafide results of mere mechanical arrangements. The inventor himself by no means encouraged this view of his invention, and he very honestly represented it as a bold and fortunate illusion. At this time the Turk had no vocal powers, and instead of the fatal échec, nodded his head three times. No false moves disconcerted him ; he quietly replaced the piece, and shook his head as if displeased. Besides the constant good fortune of the automaton in his ordinary chess conflicts, he performed a feat at chess which seems to have excited even more wonder than his successful play. We allude to the problem of the Knight's move. This must have been solved by von Kempelen or his assistant. At present we believe it is well understood, and may be found explained in various chess books. In his exhibitions, as described by contemporaries, von Kempelen opened all the doors of the chest at once, raised the clothes from the mass of clockwork which formed the Turk's body, and even exposed the hollow cavity of the Turk's limbs. A mysterious casket was invariably placed on a side table. It afterwards disappeared, and was probably but a means of misleading the spectator. Von Kempelen soon tired of the rule of showman, and we hear no more of the Turk until he reappears at court, by request of Joseph. Again crowds flocked to the levee of the inventor, and journals and newspapers spread far and wide the fame of the Turk's achievements.
Von Kempelen's pursuits made sad inroads upon his estate ; accordingly we now find the automaton setting out on a tour of exhibition, destined to replenish the pockets of his master the councillor. In the year 1783, the Android encountered the Chess-king, Philidor, at the Café de la Régence, at Paris. Before the Philidors and Legáls of this famous resort, the crescent of the Turk grew pale, and he met with a number of reverses. Here, also, he played with Franklin, who was then at Passy, and whom von Kempelen especially invited, by letter **, now in the collection of the Philosophical Society, of Philadelphia. In Berlin, the Turk met with better fortune. He conquered the courtiers of the Great Frederick, and with a sad want of complaisance, overcame that monarch himself. The king seems to have avenged himself by purchasing the Turk ; we can imagine the result ; a good round sum to von Kempelen. The top of the commode is removed, and the secret, complex from its sheer simplicity, is revealed to the resentful king. So von Kempelen goes smiling back to Presburg, and the Turk sits sullen in a garret at Potsdam. When Napoleon entered Berlin, in 1806, somebody thought of the neglected Turk, and Mr. Maelzel, a clever mechanician, was ordered to inspect and repair the dusty old enigma. From cobwebbed dreams of King Fritz, and the brave Empress, the veteran Chess-player, awakened to encounter a greater than they, fresh from the field of recent victories. On this remarkable meeting we may dwell for a moment, since its history has been faithfully preserved by an eye-witness, and has never before met the public view.
The Emperor, on this occasion, signified his wish to do battle with the Turk, and, accordingly, Mr. Maelzel arranged a second table, near that of the Turk, proposing to repeat the moves on both tables. This was Maelzel's usual mode of exhibition. Napoleon characteristically overstepping the barrier which separated the Turk from the audience, struck his hand on the automaton's chess-board, and exclaimed, " I will not contend at a distance ! We fight face to face." A grave nod indicated the Turk's assent, and the game began. The Emperor was diastrously vanquished. Shortly afterwards, a second exhibition was ordered. On this memorable occasion, the Emperor placed a large magnet on the automaton's board. Maelzel smilingly moved the iron, so as not to embarrass the game. The Turk played on, with his usual skill ; the fatal échec was heard again and again, and a second time Napoleon was defeated. The pieces were no sooner re-arranged, than the Emperor quietly removed a shawl from the shoulders of a lady near by, and with great care enveloped the face, neck, and body of the Turk, completing his arrangements with an exclamation of satisfaction. With a muffled nod, the Moslem agreed to the new condition, and this third time also victory declared itself for the Turk. For a moment the Emperor regarded his antagonist, then with a gesture of scorn, he swept the chess-men from the board, and crying Bagatelle! strode over knight and pawn, and so out of the room. Next day, at his own express desire, the Emperor beheld a revelation of this amusing secret. Like the great Frederick, Napoleon was but little pleased with the result. Who owned the automaton just at this time we are unable to say, but Maelzel seems to have been the only exhibitor. Yet a third man was fool enough to buy for himself a little discontent and the Turk's secret. Prince Eugene de Beauharnais paid 30,000 frs. for this privilege, and seems to have enjoyed it no more than the King or the Emperor had done before him. In this dilemma Mr. Maelzel offered to pay the Prince a certain sum for permission to travel and exhibit the automaton. The Prince consented, and thus the Turk and his new master began a second career of victory by defeating the Sultan and divers Beys and Muftis in the capital of Turkey itself ; and for many years the Turk now wandered, like a knight errant through the great cities of the old world. Everywhere he threw down the gauntlet, and rarely, very rarely, did he meet with disaster or defeat..
In the year 1826, Maelzel came to America with his wonderful menagerie of puppets and animated machinery accompanying the marvellous oriental chess-player. What became of Prince Eugene's claim does not appear, but Maelzel continued his exhibition, and perhaps the Prince had something else to look after at home. During this American tour some clock-making Yankee citizen of Northern New York "concluded" to make a second Turk, and accordingly "ciphered out" an automaton chess-player, which played quite as well as his prototype. The player sat in the figure arm in arm. alarmed, bought up Turk No. 2 for 5,000 dollars, and most ruthlessly consigned him to the flames. Thus once more without a rival, the Turk repaired to South America, and at last to Havanna, where Mr. Maelzel died 1839. We next find the subject of our memoir in a warehouse at Lombard Street Wharf, Philadelphia, and in possession of Mr. Ohl, merchant. He took the Turk in part payment of a debt due to him from Maelzel. In the spring of 1840 a number of curious gentlemen contributed each a certain sum, and so became possessed of the Turk at a cost of some 400 dollars. One of these gentlemen amused himself during the summer of the same year by putting the Turk in complete order. From a chaos of wires and puppets, the disjecta membra of the famous automaton came to light. Now a leg was wanting, now an arm ; or the works would not hang, or the doors would not shut. After many amusing failures the automaton regained his ancient perfection. Never was triumph so complete. In new hands, and in private, the Turk repeated his former victorious career, rarely failing to overcome his most accomplished antagonists. After his owners had amused themselves thus for a time, the Android was boxed up and placed on a back stairway of the building known as the Chinese Museum. We have already recorded the fate of the Turk, and we shall endeavour to convey to the reader some clear idea of those mysterious internal arrangements which so effectually preserved for nearly л century the secrets of von Kempelen's automaton. We trust that the following description may prove sufficiently lucid if studied with attention. Anatomical particulars of dead men's interiors are, however, proverbially difficult to make clear and plain to the laity. Moreover, this dead man is lost to us forever. We made no post-mortem. Thus we have nothing left ns but to shut our eyes and recall as we may whatsoever knowledge we still retain of our lamented friend's most perplexing visceral anatomy.
The Automaton consisted of a chest or box, behind which, firmly attached to it, sat a Turkish figure. The chest was three feet and a half long, two feet deep, and two and a half feet high, placed on castors, which enabled the exhibitor to move it over the floor of the apartment from place to place. The left arm of the Turk, part of a pentograph, communicated through his body 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 apartments above and a drawer beneath. In the smaller apartment, occupying about a third of the longitudinal dimensions of the box, was placed a number of pieces of brass, made very thin, and designed only for the purposes of deception, as they were no part of the machinery by which the moves of the game were made. In the larger apartment were also seen similar pieces of brass, representing quadrants and other philosophical instruments, designed to give the impression that they conduced, as they did not, to the movements of the automaton. The drawer which, when drawn out, seemed to be of the entire horizontal dimensions of the chest, was also deceptive, as its back end was so constructed as to move upon wheels, by means of which it did not press backwards with the sides more than a foot and a half; whilst it was caught with these sides and drawn forward as the drawer was opened, and therefore gave to the drawer the appearance of being two feet six inches in breadth or depth. Behind this movable back of the drawer there was therefore left an unoccupied space of the whole length of the chest, and rather more than a foot in breadth. In this trough was fixed an iron railroad, nearly three feet in length, upon which was placed a low seat, resting upon iron runners, adjusted to the rails beneath it. Upon this sat the operator, who was able by his greased runners to slide backwards and forwards upon the rails without quitting his seat, which he occupied throughout the exhibition. His legs were extended horizontally behind the drawer.
At the commencement of the show he sat behind the mock machinery of the smaller apartment concealed by a door, which divided it into two parts. In front he was concealed by a similar door, which closed on that side the larger section of the box, and made it appear complete when open for inspection. These two doors were made of half the thickness of the partition so that when they were both closed or placed in contact, each apartment exhibited a partition of a thickness equal to that of the rest of the partition, giving smoothness and uniformity to the dividing wall. When the apparatus was ready for exhibition, the two front doors were opened at once. A lighted candle was placed in the larger, and another was held in front of the smaller apartment, which was apparently filled with machinery. After closing these doors, the whole chest is turned round, so as to show the back of it to the spectators. While this was doing, the concealed operator slid forward into the larger apartment, pulled the thin door after him, and pushing before him the similar door in front of him. This movement was sometimes made before the instrument was turned round, and before the front door of the smaller apartment was closed, at which time Mr. Maelzel usually held a light at the window in the back of it to show that no one was concealed in it. As the player slid into the larger apartment, he was compelled to flex his knees, for which action provision was made by means of a division in its floor, which was filled up by the knees as they were bent, and which was again let down when he slid back to his first position. The floor thus formed a table for him. The whole apparatus, except the small window behind, having been closed, the operator began amidst the clatter of noisy machinery to arrange himself for the game. This he did by swinging the whole interior furniture, wheels, partitions, and all, against the outer doors and walls of the box, so as to throw all the subdivisions into one large apartment. Having completed this part of the arrangement, the concealed player took down the green baize by which the box was lined, and exhibited the under side of its top and an apartment in the interior part of the Turk, where burned a light carefully concealed until required for use.
On the underside of the chest appeared a chess board directly beneath that upon the surface, upon which the game was played. Each square was excavated, so as to make the board between the opposite squares very thin. The squares were numbered from one to sixty-four, under each of which hung a little lever well balanced, to which was attached a small disc of iron. These discs, when attracted by magnets placed on the top of the box, swung up into the excavations, and remained there quietly until liberated by the removal of the magnets, when they vibrated for some seconds like a well hung bell.*
[* The means by which the discs of steel were balanced were curiously ingenious : a thin piece of copper wire, coiled into a fiat spiral, served to counterpoise the disc. Any disturbance in the equilibrium of these little levers, could then be instantly corrected by the concealed operator, who had merely to coil up or uncoil the wire in order to effect the desired adjustment.]
In front of the operator was placed, by proper means, another chess board, firmly fixed. This was also numbered to correspond exactly to that above his head, and was perforated by holes like a marine chess board, in order to prevent the possibility of his chessmen being disarranged. Each of the latter was furnished with a peg suited to the size of the apertures in the board. Another hole was seen on each square of the player's board, into which for great exactness, the steel point of the lower end of the pentograph might be inserted, so as to bring the Turk's hand directly upon the proper place above. When entirely prepared for action, the concealed player intimated his wish to begin, which was done by signals made at the back window of the box. If a whole game was to be played—which Maelzel agreed to only when sure of victory—he placed the pieces which contained no magnet next to the Turk, and the other set, holding magnets in their interior, next to his adversary. The operator within could easily tell when this was done, for all the iron disks beneath the magnetised chessmen settled against the top of his department, and all the others stood still, in a pendulous posture, ready for action. As the Turk always claimed the first move, the operator acting for him first advanced a chessman on his own marine board, and then after starting some noisy wheels, made for the sake of sound, seized the pentograph and lifted it up, by which the Turk's arm was raised to its proper height. He then advanced it to the proper square of his board, where, by means of a slight rotation, he opened the Turk's fingers, brought them down over the proper pawn, closed the hand again, lifted up the arm, and deposited the chessman in the desired spot. Of course he knew this move, which had already been made on his own chess board. When the opponent made his move, one of the disks already described fell as he lifted his magnetic chessman, and began to swing freely, so as to give time to the man in the interior to observe it, and make the move over again on his own board. As the chessman on the outside of the top of the chest alighted upon an unoccupied square, its proper disk ascended, and clung to the inside. Thus, without any other trouble than that of repeating each of the adversary's moves upon his own board, the operator pursued his game to the end.
When first exhibited by von Kempelen, the automaton had probably no railroad and moveable seat, and the operator—necessarily a small man—lay at length behind the drawer until the chest had been carefully closed again. As great chess-players are not always diminutive personages, the exhibitor of the automaton was finally necessitated to arrange the interior so as to conceal even a tall man. Maelzel's best operator, a man named Schlumberger, was upwards of six feet in height. To secure his Mussulman from all hazard of defeat by an abler adversary, ends of games were usually played. These were so contrived as to enable the Turk, who always took in such cases the first move, to make that a fatal one. These end games—seventeen in number—were represented in a little book, of which Mœlzel had one copy to present to the adversary, and another was in possession of the concealed player.
The interior of the chest bore evidence of having once possessed a telegraph, by which Mœlzel or von Kempelen might hare given advice in a difficult emergency of the game, or have directed altogether a less skilful player. The mutilated machinery used for this purpose enabled the describer to perceive only the object of it, without qualifying him to detail its construction exactly. It consisted ot a small circular piece of brass inserted into the back of the box, close to the head of the operator. Upon the peripheral face of this on both sides were marked numbers from 0 to 9. Through its centre passed a very small rod, which by means of an index enabled the exhibitor without to direct the men within, or the man within to consult the exhibitor without. Something of this kind must have been used when, at Berlin, Napoleon I. placed a large magnet upon the outer chess-board. There were also vestiges of other arrangements by which, probably at different periods of its history, this curious piece of mechanism was managed by other signals. Sometimes, even when Maelzel stooped over the box, apparently to wind-up or adjust the machine, and during the clatter of its works, he obviously conversed with his assistant within. There was not found, upon a careful examination of the automaton, any trace of its having been at any time worked without an assistant in its interior.
** According to Prof. Geo. Allen:
In the year 1783, Wolfgang von Kempelen, the ingenious inventor of the far-famed Automaton Chess-Player, arrived in Paris. He brought letters from Vienna to Dr. Franklin. M. Valltravers wrote to him as follows:
The occasion of this letter is furnished me by a very ingenious gentleman, M. Kempel, Counsellor of his Imperial Majesty's Finances for the Kingdom of Hungary, who, on a furlough obtained for two years, is ready to set out for Paris, Brussels, and England, attended by his whole family, his lady, two song, and two daughters; not only to satisfy his own curiosity, but also in a great measure that of the public. Endowed with a peculiar taste and genius for mechanical inventions and improvements, for which he sees no manner of encouragement in these parts, he means to impart several of his most important discoveries and experiments wherever they shall be best received and rewarded. As an amusing specimen of his skill in mechanics, and as a means at the same time of supporting his travelling charges, he intends to exhibit the figure of a Turk playing at Chess with any player; and answering, by pointing at the letters of an alphabet, any questions made to him. I saw him play twice without discovering his intelligent director anywhere in or about him. If there were nothing but the organization of his arm, hand, and fingers, besides the motions of his head, that alone would entitle him to no small admiration.
The American sage, too, it seems had his bout with that memorable Mussulman who penetrated, a conqueror, into regions whither neither Abderahman nor Mahomet the Second had ever dreamed of carrying the crescent flag. No record or. tradition has handed down to us the result of the encounter. But, alas for Christian courage and American prowess, we very much fear that the pagan Moslem triumphed, and thus added the subjugator of lightning to his long list of conquests. In connexion with this matter the following remark by Franklin's grandson may be of interest:
Sir:— I was very much flattered with the letter I had the pleasure to receive from your Excellency by means of the ingenious M. de Kempel's arrival in this country. The favorable opinion you entertain of his talents is alone sufficient to convince me of their extent and usefulness. I cannot find words to express the gratitude I feel for the honor of your remembrance. I shall, therefore, only beg leave to assure you, that it will be the pride of my life to have been noticed by one of the most distinguished characters of the age, and I shall endeavor, upon all occasions, to contribute my mite of admiration to the universal applause which your eminent qualities, as a philosopher and politician, are so well entitled to. I have the honor to be, with great respect,
There is some confusion over the authorship of this article. It's been noted that it was written by both Dr. John Kearsley Mitchell and by his son Silas Weir Mitchell. I the Book of the First American Chess Congress, Prof. Geo. Allen wrote: "This remark applies, I am sorry to say, to the account given by my friend, the author of an interesting article in the first volume of the Chess Monthly, the materials for which were furnished by the late lamented Dr. Mitchell. That estimable gentleman supposed himself (as he said) to be merely recording what he had been told by Maelzel himself; but I am certain, that in some particulars he mistook for recollections of Maelzel's conversation what were really recollections of a newspaper translation of De Tournay's article in the Palamede, and that in others he mixed up some faint impressions left by Windisch's pamphlet with what a certain witness said he had heard from Maelzel. All of this was very natural in the case of an elderly man looking back over the dim space of from twenty to thirty years. I venture to oppose to such unsatisfactory testimony the perfect coincidence of two gentlemen of very accurate habits of mind, in their separate and distinct reports of what they had learned directly from Maelzel himself—I mean Dr. J. I. Cohen, of Baltimore, and Dr. C. F. Schmidt, of Cincinnati. The "fighting face to face," the "lady's shawl," the "magnets," the "striding over Knight and Pawn," must be dismissed, I fear, as apocryphal."
Prof. Geo. Allen wrote that Dr. John Kearsley Mitchell dictated an explanation which was communicated to the Chess Monthly.