The Mechanical Turk

An 18th-century automaton that could beat the world's leading minds at chess: what was The Mechanical Turk's secret?

Ever wished you hadn’t spoken in haste? Having boasted he could do better than the illusionists at the Viennese Imperial Court, civil servant Wolfgang von Kempelen found himself taken up on the offer by Maria-Theresa, the Empress of Austria-Hungary. A thriver under pressure, in 1770 Kempelen returned and unveiled an automaton that had all the skills of a chess master. And wore a turban.

The Mechanical Turk was a sensation. It would beat most opponents inside half an hour and pitch a gear-grinding tantrum if you tried to trick it playing illegal moves. Kempelen was ordered to take his marvel on tour, where it defeated Benjamin Franklin. Even after Kempelen’s death the Turk continued to play, counting Napoleon Bonaparte among its victims.

It’s surprising how many witnesses were taken in by the Turk – there was of course a chess master secreted within the cabinet. But this was an age of progress, and one of the Turk’s defeated foes, computer pioneer Charles Babbage, left wondering if a chess-playing machine could really be constructed. Odd to think that the beginnings of the computer age can be traced to a wooden racial stereotype designed by a civil servant in a tight spot.

Mark Blackmore has written for many diverse publications including Men’s Health, BBC HistoryCountryfile, Focus, The World of Cross Stitching and Sabotage Times. He recently published The Wager, a novel about a bet between God and Lucifer.

To read more curious history tales, download iPad issue 2 or buy our first print edition of Ernest Journal