The Turk: Wolfgang von Kempelen's Fake Automaton Chess Player

Built in the late 18th century, the Mechanical Turk was a fake chess-playing machine which was also the inspiration for Amazon's Mechanical Turks.
Susan Fourtané

The Mechanical Turk, also known as the Automaton Chess Player, was a fake chess-playing machine constructed in the late 18th century. The invention was designed by Hungarian engineer and inventor Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1769. The machine was introduced as a chess playing automaton capable of beating even the strongest challengers.


The Automaton's first performance was for the Habsburg Court in Vienna in 1770. It was exhibited thereafter, although somewhat intermittently, for the next 84 years. After Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen's death in 1804, the Automaton was purchased by Bavarian showman Johann Nepomuk Maelzel.

In 1809, during the Wagram campaign, Napoleon Bonaparte played against the Automaton in Vienna and was defeated. The Automaton was part of the private collection of Prince Eugene de Beauharnais for a period of time until it was acquired again by Maelzel in 1817.

Further exhibitions followed around the world. But in 1837 both Maelzel and the Turk's operator, Schlumberger, who was the tutor of Pierre Charles Fournier de Saint Amant, died from Yellow fever while returning to the USA from Havana.

turk engraving
Source: Badlydrawnjeff/Wikimedia Commons

The Mechanical Turk: A mechanical illusion 

From 1770 until its destruction by fire in 1854, the Automaton was exhibited by various owners. However, it was eventually revealed to be an elaborate ingenious hoax. 

Wolfgang von Kempelen designed, constructed, and unveiled the Automaton in 1770, in order to impress the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. The system appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent. It also performed the Knight's Tour, a puzzle that requires the player to move a knight to occupy every square of a chessboard exactly once.

The Mechanical Turk on the silver screen 

The story of both the film and the book about the Mechanical Turk link a cast of historical characters, from Napoleon Bonapart, Ludvig van Beethoven, Benjamin Franklin, and Edgar Allan Poe to the pioneers of the computer age. The storyline provides an accessible way of examining the relationship between magic, man, mind, and machine.

Inspiration for the making of the Mechanical Turk

When Wolfgang von Kempelen attended an event at the court of Maria Theresia of Austria at Schönbrunn Palace, François Pelletier was performing an illusion act. von Kempelen was then inspired to build the Automaton, as it was known first. History tells that after a conversation von Kempelen had with Maria Theresia, he promised to return to the Palace with an invention of his own that would top the illusions of Pelletier. And that is exactly what he did.

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The result of the challenge was the Automaton Chess-player. The machine consisted of a life-sized model of a human head and torso, with a black beard and grey eyes. The Automaton was dressed in Ottoman robes and a turban, the traditional costume of an oriental sorcerer.

The Turk: Wolfgang von Kempelen's Fake Automaton Chess Player
Source: Harmil/Wikimedia Commons

Its left arm held a long Ottoman smoking pipe while at rest. Its right hand lay on the top of a large cabinet. 

Placed on the top of the cabinet was a chessboard. The front of the cabinet consisted of three doors, an opening, and a drawer which could be opened to reveal a red and white ivory chess set.

Famous people who played against the Mechanical Turk 

People defeated by the Mechanical Turk include: Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonapart, and the Russian Tsar Paul I. In a rare occasion, in 1793, François-André Danican Philidor won a match against the Mechanical Turk in Paris. 

 Other chess automatons inspired by the Mechanical Turk 

automaton chess player
Source: Viktorianec/Wikimedia Commons

 The two other famous chess automatons built subsequently were Ajeeb (Automaton) and Mephisto (Automaton).

 How the Mechanical Turk worked

the turk
Source: Solensean/Wikimedia Commons

The Turk was a mechanical illusion that allowed a human chess master hiding inside to operate the machine. With a skilled operator, the Turk won most of the games played during its demonstrations around Europe and the Americas for nearly 84 years. The Turk played with and defeating many challengers including statesmen such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.

The device was later purchased in 1804 and exhibited by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel. The chess masters who secretly operated the Turk included Johann Allgaier, Boncourt, Aaron Alexandre, William Lewis, Jacques Mouret, and William Schlumberger. However, the operators within the mechanism during Wolfgang von Kempelen's original tour remain a mystery.

During a performance, the showman would open two cabinets to display a large empty space. A third cabinet displayed an area of tightly packed machinery, presumably the brains of the contraption. The secret of this hoax was that a normal sized man could recline and hide within the machine and remain unseen by the audience by repositioning himself during the initial display of the device's interior.

Inside of the Mechanical Turk

Kempelen chess
Source: Carafe/Wikimedia Commons

The interior of the machine was very complicated and designed to mislead anyone who observed it. When opened on the left, the front doors of the cabinet exposed a number of gears and cogs, similar to clockwork. The section was designed so that if the back doors of the cabinet were open at the same time one could see through the machine.

The other side of the cabinet did not house machinery; instead it contained a red cushion and some removable parts, as well as brass structures. This area was designed to provide a clear line of vision through the machine. Underneath the robes of the Ottoman model, two other doors were hidden.

These also exposed clockwork machinery and provided a similarly unobstructed view through the machine. The design allowed the presenter of the machine to open every available door to the public. In this way, he could maintain the illusion.

The Turk ended its glorious days in the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia where, unfortunately, it was destroyed by a fire in 1854.

Amazon Mechanical Turk

In 2005, launched the Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk). The Web-based software application that coordinates programming tasks with human intelligence. The service was inspired, in part, by the way Kempelen's Mechanical Turk operated. The program is designed to have humans perform tasks with which computers struggle, such as color comparisons.

MTurk provides companies with access to a marketplace of on-demand workers whenever a business needs them connecting to a variety of skill sets and capabilities via a global workforce.  

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