The Mechanical Turk

By [(Alex Beard)]

The Mechanical Turk was a machine built by Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770 to impress Maria Theresa. It appeared to play a good game of chess against a human opponent. It actually had a chess master operator hidden inside the machine, though that was not revealed until many years later. It was popular for a time, touring Europe and America beating people like Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon.
The Turk resembled a life sized Turkish man with a black beard and gray eyes wearing a turban and robes. He held large pipe in hand and his other hand rested on a cabinet when not making moves. The front of the cabinet had three doors, an opening, and a drawer that had the chess set in it. On top of the cabinet was the chess board on which the game was played
The inside of the cabinet was complicated, with lots of clockwork like gears, to confuse those who looking at it. Multiple doors could be opened at the same time to see through the machine. The operator moved around on a sliding cushion inside so he would not be seen.
Each chess piece had a small but strong magnet in them. When on the board they would attract other magnets from inside the cabinet so that the operator could tell what was going on. The magnets were positioned so that they would not be affected by outside magnets, so Kempelen often put huge magnets on the side of the board.
The inside also contained a pantograph like group of levers that controlled the Turk’s left arm. The levers allowed a wide range of motion, and twisting the handle closed or opened the Turk’s hand.
The first public appearance of the Turk was in 1770 at Schönbrunn Palace. After displaying the clockwork parts and opening the doors in the cabinet, Kempelen said the Turk was ready to play. Count Ludwig von Cobenzl was the first opponent, he along with many other opponents, was beaten quickly. The Turk had an aggressive play style, and beat many opponents within a half hour.
If an opponent made an illegal move, the Turk shook it’s head and put the piece back where it came from. The Turk would nod twice when it threatened the queen and nod three times when it put the king check. When Napoleon Bonaparte played the Turk in 1809, he made an illegal move, and the Turk put the piece back where it was. When Napoleon made a second illegal move, the Turk removed the piece from the game. When Napoleon made his third illegal move, the Turk wiped all the pieces off the board. Napoleon was amused by this and then played a real game with the Turk, and surrendered after 19 moves.
After the initial showing of the Turk, it only played one opponent in the next ten years, Sir Robert Murray Keith. This was because Kempelen was more interested in other things, such as the steam engine. After playing the match against Sir Robert Murray, Kempelen completely dismantled the Turk, and did not reassemble it until 1781, when Emperor Joseph II ordered him to.
After reassembling it, Kempelen took the Turk on a tour across Europe, even playing François-André Danican Philidor, who was considered the best chess player of the time. François-André Danican Philidor did beat the Turk, but he called it the most exhausting game of chess he had ever played.
Books and pamphlets guessing at the nature of the Turk followed it wherever it went. Many people suspected that an operator secretly controlled it. Many thought that a child, or a war veteran who had lost limbs controlled it.
After the tour of Europe, the Turk mostly collected dust for twenty years. After several attempts to sell Turk, Kempelen died in 1804. Four years later, Kempelen’s son sold it to Johann Nepomuk Mälzel.
Mälzel eventually took the Turk to America. There it remained for the most part until it’s destruction in a fire in July 1854.
The Turk is probably the forerunner to the Amazon Mechanical Turk. The Chess playing Turk relied on a human operator to do tasks that were difficult for a machine such as thinking and reasoning. The Amazon Turk has a similar vein of thinking. They let a computer do things that computers are good at, like calculating, and have people do things that are difficult for a computer to do, such as color recognition, or tasks that require human intelligence.
It also, arguably, is the predecessor of all chess playing programs. There are very many of these, including one on the web that is actually called the Turk. Most impressive of these chess playing computers would be Deep Blue, which beat Garry Kasparov, the world champion chess player, in 1997. Chess machines have come a long way, from an illusion, to beating the world champion.

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