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The Turk - Joseph Friedrich Freiherr zu Racknitz

Feb 5, 2009, 6:54 AM 1


Joseph Friedrich Freiherr zu Racknitz claimed to have contructed a replica of the Turk in order to ascertain its secrets. He published his findings in 1789 in a book entitled  Über den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen und dessen Nachbildung.*
In English this means:  About the Chessplayer of Mr. von Kempelen and its Replica.

While Racknitz put forth a credible explanation about how the Turk operated mechanically, he was unable to determine how the operator of the machine, unless he were a dwarf, concealed himself so effectively. 

Racknitz' book is not only quite rare with copies difficult to locate, it's also written in German, of course, and in that fanciful, difficult-to-read script common to older German books.  The information I found is all second and third hand, but adequate.

* not to be confused with Carl Friedrich Hindenburg's Über den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen, nebst einer Abbildung und Beschreibung seiner Sprachmachine.


Joseph Friedrich Freiherr zu Racknitz  was born in 1744 and died in 1818. He was a public official in Dresden (where his book was published).


Georg Gläser and Ernst Strouhal form the University of Applied Arts Vienna wrote a paper "Kemplen's chess playing pseuodo-automaton and Racknitz' explanation of its controls 1789"

According to their paper "Racknitz was eventually to become the first to construct two intricate replicas of Kempelen's automaton which enabled him to describe the controls of the "Turk" in detail."

   A most interesting passage from their paper is "Details on the presentation and some explanations"

          "Before we can discuss the questions of the controls, it is necessary
     to accurately describe the automaton and the way it was presented by 
          Presenting himself to the audience as a serious mechanic, Kempelen
     started his performance by announcing that the following was a 
     deception, a mechanical illusion.  The automaton consisted of a life 
     size puppet in Turkish traditional dress, sitting cross-legged against the 
     back of a wooden chest. The chest (approximately 150 x 68 x 117 cm) 
     was mounted on rollers to prevent any interference from ropes or wires 
     under or from behind the stage.  On top of the chest was a counter-
     sunken chess board.
        The front of the chest displayed three doors; each separated into 
     two sections. Under the doors, a drawer contended the full length of 
     the chest.  Before beginning, Kempelen opened both sections, one 
     after the other. In the left compartment there was a confusion of cogs, 
     rollers and levers.  The right side was practically empty.  It contained 
     two quadrants and a cable winch at the top, as well as a pillow.  He 
     also opened the lower drawer, which held the chess pieces.  One after 
     the other he shone the light of a candle into each section.  The 
     movement of the candle was visible behind the chest, which excluded 
     the possibility of a trickwith mirrors.  Finally the puppet would be 
     shown sitting at the back of the chest. [In this section of the chest 
     there was also a smaller chest.  At the beginning of the presentation 
     this was displayed several metres away.  The smaller box had no other 
     function than to create confusion.  Some observers suspected it of 
     containing a magnet which steeked the Turk.]
          After the presentation, a volunteer was invited to participate in a 
     game. The Turk always took the first move and player left-handed.  It 
     announced "check" by nodding its head three times.  After a dozen 
     moves or so, the machine was wound up, apparently to give the player 
     a chance to clear his throat under the cover of the noise.
          After the game, the Turk answered questions from the audience by 
     pointing at the appropriate golden letters on a board.  Afterwards, 
     Kempelen himself was available for questioning. [The fact that the 
     Turk not only played chess but could obviously hear and understand was 
     of particular interest to the observers.  For the German  translators, 
     this was final proof that the Turk was not an autonomous automaton.]
          From the first performances at the beginning of the 1770's the 
     interest was predominantly in the Turk's functioning autonomously, 
     which was considered to be entirely possible.  Typical of this are Louis 
     Dutens letters * of 1771 and the first reposts from Karl Gottlieb von 
     Windisch in 1773.  Windisch was a journalist and senator who later 
     became mayor of Pressburg.  He fully represented the Enlightenment 
     and like Kempelen himself, was a freemason and had strong bonds to 
     the Kempelen family. 
          Because of this, Windisch's letters about Kempelen's chess player 
     should be seen as advertising tracts,  however, changes are obvervable 
     in them between 1773 and 1783, without fear of ruining his reputation 
     as a man of the Enlightenment, Windisch gave the first critics who 
     suspected the presence of a player  in the machine this answer:
I have carefully inspected the table and the machine several times and 
     I can assure you with all confidence that there remains not the slightest 
     grounds to such a suspicion
.' "

* Louis Dutens was an observer of the Turk who wrote several letters published in Le Mercure du France. He attempted to trick the automaton "by giving the Queen the move of a Knight, but my mechanic opponent was not to be so imposed upon; he took up my Queen and replaced her in the square from which I had moved her."

 The authors cite two sources not readily available:

J.L. Boeckmann:
Versuch einer Erklarung des von Hr. v. Kempelen
           erfundenen mechanischenSchachspielers. Der erlauchten
           Churfurstlich Mainzischen Academie der Wissenschaften zu 
           Erfurtehrerbietigst gewidmet
. Carlsruhe 1789 (Posselt's Magazin 
           fur Aufklarung, Kehl 1785).

           G. Bradford: The History and Analysis of the Supposed Automaton 
           Chess Player, of M. de Kempelen, now exhibiting in this Country, 
           by Mr. Maelzel. Boston 1826

After several pages of detailed descriptions, the authors conclude:

          "The analyzation of Racknitz' description shows that he had in fact 
     probably built a machine that could fulfill all the tasks of Kempelen's 
     automation.  The computer simulation, written with the program 
     system Open Geometry,  works fine. Next we will try to rebuild 
     Racknitz' machine physically.  Furthermore, we plan to write an 
     interactive computer simulation that can be run over the Internet 
     (Java-code!).  The final goal is tobe able to play chess with a virtual 
     automaton. Therefore we plan to implement the chess engine of a 
     professional chess program."


Unfortunately, I couldn't find any indication that these plans were followed through.


Below are scans of six plates from Über den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen und dessen Nachbildung.









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