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Turkish Embellishments
March, 2006

I'm a Turk-aholic.

I have a thing for von Kempelen's famous Automaton.

I'm not about to put its entire history here. That would take a short book. But I thought I'd offer some embellishments - things most people don't see, or even look for concerning the Turk.

My friend sent me this neat newspaper clipping -


For those who know little or nothing about the Turk, here's a  good overview.

A short story about a Turk-like Automaton written by Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce 1910 called Moxon's Master

In 1832 Hannah Flagg Gould (1789-1865) of Boston, Massachusetts wrote and had published a poem called, "Address to the Automaton Chess Player" and it's the first published chess-related work by a woman in America.

Tom Standage wrote The Turk: the Life and Times of the Famous eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine

This book deals very little with the chess aspect but delves into the ideas of automata and A. I. It's very well researched and equally well written.



Books on the Turk:

The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine by Tom Standage  2002.

The Turk, Chess Automaton by Gerald M. Levitt  2000.

The Great Chess Automaton  by Charles Michael Carroll (116 pages) Dover Publications 1975.

Modus operandi, or, The automaton chess-player: A play in three acts, with prefatory remarks, and extracts from original letters on De Kempelin's automaton chess-player, published in 1784  by J. Walker  - T.H. Lacy,1866

The Automaton Chess-Player by E. S. D. - Littell, Son & Co 01, 1859.

Edgar Allan Poe and Baron von Kempelen's Chess-Playing Automaton  by Henry Ridgely Evans.

Edgar Allan Poe, "Maelzel's Chess-Player," Southern Literary Journal, April 1836

Automate Joueur d’Echecs by anonymous, 1834.

Observations upon the automaton chess player of von Kempelen, and upon other automata and androides, now exhibiting in the United States, by Mr. Maelzel: ... upon the chess-board, by the knight's move by Thomas P Jones.

The history and analysis of the supposed automaton chess player of M. de Kempelen,: Now exhibiting in this country by Mr. Maelzel; with lithographic figures, ... method by which its motions are directed  by Gamaliel Bradford - Hilliard, Gray, 1826.

Chess: A selection of fifty games, from those played by the automaton chess-player, during its exhibition in London in 1820. Taken down, by permission of Mr. Maelzel, at the time they were played  by W. J. Hunneman.

An attempt to analyse the automaton chess player, of Mr. de Kempelen ... to which is added, a ... collection of the knight's moves over the chess board 
by Robert Willis 1819.

John Gaughan devoted 20 years and $120,000 re-creating the Turk. His re-creation uses the actual chess board that was part of the original Turk
(The chess board wasn't stored with the Turk in the Chinese Museum that burned to the ground in 1854, but rather was kept in its owner's, Dr. Mitchell's, office.)

Gaughan owns a business that creates and supplies magicians with props and tools-of-their-trade. His "Turk,"  a near perfect reproduction, gave it's first performance in November 1989.





The New Turk


Anne Sunnuck's Encyclopedia of Chess gives this article on the Turk:

Anne Sunnuck

'The Turk' was an automaton chess player, constructed in Vienna in
1769 by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, an Hungarian engineer.
The automaton was a life-sized figure, dressed as a Turk, seated
behind a chest approx. 4 feet long, 2 feet wide and 3 feet high, the
top of which was a chessboard. 'The Turk' took on all corners at
chess, moving the pieces with his left hand.
Before each exhibition, the inside of the chest was shown to the
audience, and appeared to contain a lot of intricate machinery, which
was heard in motion while the game was being played. There was much
conjecture on how the automaton worked, as the figure had no legs and
the machinery appeared to occupy the whole of the inside of the chest.
It was first exhibited in Vienna in 1770 and later visited Dresden,
Leipzig, Paris and London, where it was installed at 8 Saville Row,
Burlington Gardens, in 1784. Visitors paid an admission fee of 5
After Kempelen's death in 1804 'The Turk' was bought by Johann
Maelzel, a Bavarian musician, who exhibited it in Germany, Paris,
London and Amsterdam before it went to the United States in 1826.
Napoleon played against it when it was in Schönbrunn in 1809.
When Maelzel died in 1837 'The Turk' changed hands several times and
finally ended up in the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia, where it was
destroyed by fire in 1854.
There are a lot of varying accounts of the history of 'The Turk'. One
story of its origin is that during the revolt at Riga in 1769 a rebel
officer named Warousky had his legs shattered by a cannon ball and
they had to be amputated. The doctor who hid him was a friend of
Kempelen's. One day when Kempelen was watching Warousky, a strong player, playing chess with the doctor, he struck upon the idea of a
chess automaton as a means of making money and at the same time
employing Warousky.
There are several versions of how the automaton was operated. One was that the player hidden inside the automaton was able to enter it,
after inspection, and by squeezing his head through the large neck of
the figure could see the board through the mask. Another is given by
H. J. R. Murray in his History of Chess:The device was really quite simple: a strong magnet was fixed within the base of each chessman and from the inner surface of the chest, immediately below the board, were suspended small iron balls by threads. As long as the chessman stood on a particular square, the  corresponding ball was attracted against the roof of the chest, and soon as it was lifted from its place, the ball fell to the length the thread.

A number of different players, all of small stature and of master or  near master strength were engaged to operate the automaton. They included Allgaier, Lewis, Boneourt and Mouret.

Actually, Boncourt and later Schlumburger were both well over 6 feet tall. [sbc]


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