Monster in a Box

Jul 13, 2011, 6:18 PM |

The inside story of an ingenious chess-playing machine that thrilled crowds, terrified opponents, and won like clockwork.

By Tom Standage

One autumn day in 1769, a 35-year-old civil servant was summoned to the imperial court in Vienna to witness a magic show. Wolfgang von Kempelen - well versed in physics, mechanics, and hydraulics - was a trusted servant of Maria Theresa, the empress of Austria-Hungary. She had invited him in order to see what a scientific man would make of the magician's tricks. The event was to change the course of Kempelen's life.

For he was so unimpressed by the performance that, once it was over, Kempelen made an uncharacteristic and audacious claim. In front of the whole court, he declared that he could do better. Maria Theresa could hardly allow such a boast to pass without comment. Very well, she said. Excusing Kempelen from his official duties for six months, the empress challenged him to keep his word. Kempelen agreed not to return to the court until he was ready to stage a performance of his own.

He did not disappoint. In the spring of 1770, Kempelen reappeared before the empress and unveiled an extraordinary machine: a life-size mannequin seated behind a cabinet. The figure was made of carved wood and wore an ermine-trimmed robe, loose trousers, and a turban. The wooden box was 4 feet long, 2.5 feet deep, and 3 feet high, and rested on four brass casters. This meant the whole contraption could be moved around and rotated freely, so that it could be viewed easily from every angle. The front of the cabinet was divided into three doors of equal width, with a long drawer along the bottom. The wooden figure sat with its right arm extended, resting on the cabinet top, and its eyes stared down at a large chessboard directly in front of it. Its left hand held a long Turkish pipe, as though it had just finished smoking.

Stepping forward to address the audience, Kempelen announced that he had built a machine the likes of which had never been seen: an automaton, or mechanical toy, capable of playing chess. A skeptical murmur passed through the crowd. Kempelen explained that before demonstrating his invention, he would display its inner workings. He reached into his pocket and produced a set of keys, one of which he used to unlock the leftmost door on the front of the cabinet. Kempelen opened it to reveal an elaborate mechanism of densely packed wheels, cogs, levers, and clockwork machinery, including a large horizontal cylinder with a complex configuration of protruding studs, similar to that found in a musical box. As the audience scrutinized these workings, Kempelen opened another door directly behind the machinery and held a burning candle so that its flickering light was visible to spectators through the intricate clockwork. He then closed and locked the rear door.

Kempelen returned to the front, where he pulled out the long drawer to reveal a set of chess pieces in red and white ivory; he placed these on the top of the cabinet. Next, he unlocked and opened the two remaining doors in the front to reveal the main compartment, which contained only a red cushion, a small wooden casket, and a board marked with gold letters. Kempelen placed these items on a small table near the automaton.

Leaving all the doors and the drawer open, Kempelen rotated the automaton so that its back was to the crowd. Lifting up its robe, he revealed a small door in the figure's left thigh and one in its back, both of which opened to show more clockwork machinery. Kempelen then closed all the doors and the drawer, replaced the robe, and returned his contraption to its original position facing the onlookers. He slid the cushion beneath the figure's left elbow, removed the long pipe from its left hand, put the chess pieces on the appropriate squares, and reached inside the cabinet to make a final adjustment to the machinery. Finally, he placed two candelabras on top of the cabinet to illuminate the board.

Kempelen announced that the automaton was ready to play chess against anyone prepared to challenge it, and recruited a volunteer - a courtier named Count Cobenzl - from the audience. Kempelen explained that his mechanical man would play the white pieces and have the first move, that moves could not be taken back once made, and that it was important to place the pieces exactly on the center of the squares, so that the automaton would be able to grasp them correctly. The count nodded. Kempelen then inserted a large key into an aperture in the cabinet and wound up the clockwork mechanism with a loud ratcheting sound.

Once Kempelen stopped turning the key there was an agonizing silence. Then, after a brief pause, the sound of whirring and grinding clockwork could be heard coming from inside. The carved figure slowly turned its head from side to side, as though surveying the board. To the utter astonishment of the audience, the mechanical man then lurched to life, reaching out its left arm and moving one of its chessmen forward. The room cried out in amazement. The game had begun.

The sight of a machine playing chess was astounding enough, but the Turk, as it came to be known, also proved to be a formidable opponent. Count Cobenzl was swiftly defeated; the automaton was a fast, aggressive player, and subsequently proved to be capable of beating most people within half an hour. Kempelen, it seemed, had built a mechanical man whose clockwork mind could outthink most humans.

The Turk's sensational performance delighted the empress. Kempelen and his automaton made many more appearances before the royal family, government ministers of Austria-Hungary and of foreign countries, and other eminent visitors to the court. His extraordinary creation became the talk of Vienna, and the news of its triumphs quickly spread throughout Europe.