The Pioneering 18th Century Chess Robot That Was Just a Dude Hiding in a Box
We’re used to breakthroughs. We live in an age where technology advances so quickly that seeing once-unimaginable feats performed by computers and artificial intelligence barely causes anyone to raise an eyebrow. We carry supercomputers in our pockets and complain when they do anything less then perfectly.
But once upon a time, technological feats drew gasping crowds and every breakthrough seemed tantamount to magic.
One such breakthrough came in 1770, when a Hungarian inventor named Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled the Mechanical Turk, an automaton capable of beating people at chess, to impress the Empress of Austria. It was a striking-looking machine, a large wooden cabinet accompanied by the top half of a model man in a turban. Inside the doors of the cabinet was an impressively complicated array of shiny brass pipes, cogs, turbines and wheels. On the top was a chessboard, over which one of the Turk’s hands hovered.
When someone was invited to play against the automaton, the Turk’s arm would move to a piece, pick it up and make a move. It would nod three times if it had placed its opponent’s piece in check, and would shake its head if its opponent performed an illegal move. Kempelen, who stood by the machine at all times, would frequently glance into a small, vaguely coffin-like box at the edge of the table. The overall impression was eerie enough — no doubt helped by the unshifting expression of the mysterious turbaned figure — that some audience members were convinced that supernatural elements were at play.
It was presented, however, as cutting-edge technology. When the cabinet was open, spectators could see right through it, marveling at the intricacy of it all. As well as beating almost all challengers, the Turk could perform the technically challenging “knight’s tour,” in which a knight visits every square on the board.
Chess has always held a certain status in the public imagination, symbolic of extreme, but very human, genius — someone excelling at it is seen as operating at a deeper level of intelligence than those around them. It’s used as a metaphor for life and for war. Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal shows a knight playing chess with Death itself, an iconic piece of cinema history that wouldn’t be the same if they were playing Hungry Hungry Hippos.
The machine was a sensation upon its public debut, beating member after member of the Queen’s court. However, after a few demonstrations, von Kempelen stopped showing it off, claiming whenever anyone wanted to play against it that it was being repaired. He instead focused on his other passions: speaking machines. It was a full decade after its debut that he was persuaded (read: ordered) to bring it out again, and subsequently take it on tour through Europe. Crowds gathered and paid handsomely from London to Leipzig. Benjamin Franklin played against it in Paris. After its creator died, its new owner, Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, toured it further: Napoleon lost to it after attempting to cheat; Founding Father Charles Carroll beat it in Baltimore. Decades after its first game, the Mechanical Turk remained a marvel.
Except, it wasn’t.
It was, in fact, all bullshit. The high-tech trappings were nonsense, and the way the machine worked was ultimately very low-fi: There was a dude in there. A dude who was great at chess, but a dude nonetheless. He could see where all the chess pieces were from underneath, and controlled the Turk with a series of levers. When the “knight’s tour” was performed, the operator was following a set of instructions in there with him.
When someone played against the Mechanical Turk, they were playing against a very patient, cramped, skilled chess player curled up in a cabinet. The machinery inside had been designed to allow every section to be revealed in turn, the secret player moving from part to part as needed. The coffin-like box on the top was meaningless, a red herring designed to distract. The whole thing was ingenious, but not in the way it was presented as being ingenious.
That was why von Kempelen was so unenthusiastic about it following its initial unveiling — for all the excitement it brought everyone else, he knew it was just a cheap trick. While there had always been speculation that the cabinet housed a series of small but talented chess players, nobody had ever entirely hit upon how it worked. Edgar Allan Poe concluded that there had to be a human element in there when he saw the Turk lose a game, his logic being that a genuine version would perform flawlessly.
It was obvious to some people what was going on — copycat automatons were built by rivals in which the secret was exactly the same, and articles floating it as an idea had frequently appeared, but nobody got it quite right or could explain it in a way that satisfied people, perhaps because the truth was so unsatisfying. The machine represented progress, genius, innovation; hiding a person in a box was none of these things.
Touring Cuba, however, disaster struck: William Schlumberger, the player inside the Turk, became ill with scarlet fever and died. Mälzel himself died on the ship home, and the Turk ended up in a museum, where it was destroyed in a fire.
In 1912, 142 years after the Mechanical Turk was built, Spanish engineers debuted El Ajedrecista. This was a machine that genuinely did what the Turk claimed to do, with some fairly hefty caveats — rather than an entire game of chess, El Ajedrista could only do the very end, using a white king and rook to checkmate a black king moved by the human player. It was an extraordinary feat even with those caveats, worked out with analogue algorithms and laying a claim to arguably being the first-ever computer game.
It wasn’t until 1997, when IBM’s famous supercomputer Deep Blue beat international chess number one Garry Kasparov, that technology had genuinely reached the point von Kempelen’s automaton alleged in 1770: capable of beating anyone at chess. (The name “Mechanical Turk” is now used by Amazon for a controversial service providing cheap human input on jobs where people outperform computers — certain types of image recognition, for instance — but in a totally removed way for the client, where it feels much like deploying software to perform a task. The thinking behind the name is that it’s humans hidden within a machine, rather than a giant decades-long scam.)
Why then, over 200 years before it was possible, were so many people taken in by it?
While computers have shown that chess can be won algorithmically through sheer mathematics, it’s a complex enough game in the hands of mere humans that personality shines through. Aggression, patience, recklessness, desperation, tenacity, elegance — these are all deeply human traits that can be played out upon a chessboard. Calculation is one thing, but chess feels like it requires thinking. A machine outperforming a human at arithmetic? Impressive. But a machine outperforming a human at an exercise in deviousness, grace and courage? That feels substantially different, less like an assistant and more like a replacement.
That’s why people gasped in 1770, and why they gasped again in 1997. Now, of course, every one of us is carrying around a device that can outperform us in countless fields many times over, that can run programs that may put large swathes of us out of work, that we are in thrall to.
Yet somehow, we’re not gasping any more. We probably should be.