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1769: First Computer Chess Game

Updated on June 28, 2011

“The Turk”

In 1769 a Hungarian nobleman named Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734–1804) constructed a turban-wearing, chess playing automaton that defeated virtually all challengers. It was later to become known as “The Turk.”

To audiences, The Turk appeared to be simply a mechanical man positioned over a chessboard. However, after observing its intricate machinery, many concluded it was the most fantastic invention of the century. And it might have been… except it was a hoax.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote an essay about it. And magicians built illusions around its concepts. It sparked controversy everywhere it was shown.

Today The Turk has been mostly forgotten and regulated to the dusty pages of history. But, Tom Standage, author of a biography on the subject " wants to correct this.

"I loved the idea this machine prompted a debate, in the late 18th century, about whether a machine could think or not," said the British author. "We like to think that the 'artificial intelligence' debate is a modern phenomenon, but it's not." He continued.

During exhibitions, Kempelen would open the doors and cubbyholes in the platform underneath the chessboard, revealing all its gears and machinery for viewers to examine. Then audience members were challenged to play the Turk. Almost all were defeated.

A Mechanical Illusion

The Turk was actually a mechanical illusion which allowed a chess master to hide inside and operate the machine. In this manner, the Turk was able to win most of the games played during its demonstrations around Europe and the Americas.

For almost 84 years it played and defeated many challengers including such notables as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin until it was destroyed by fire in 1854.

Kempelen built the curiosity following an attendance at the court of Maria Theresa of Austria where noted illusionist Francois Pellitier was performing. Following the performance Kempelen promised to return with an invention that would top Pellitier’s illusions.

The result was the Automaton Chess-player. The machine included a life-sized human head and torso, with a black beard and grey eyes. It was attired in Turkish robes and a turban. Reportedly its left arm held a long Turkish smoking pipe while its right lay on the top of a large cabinet with a chessboard. The front of the cabinet had three doors, an opening, and a drawer. The drawer could be opened to reveal a red and white ivory chess set.

The interior of the machine was complicated and deliberately designed to confuse and mislead anyone who examined it. Inside the cabinet were gears and cogs similar in appearance to the workings of a clock. It was designed so if any combination of doors were opened at once one could see through it. However, one side of the cabinet did not contain machinery. It contained a red cushion, some removable parts and brass structures. This area was also designed to give a clear line of vision through the machine.

Underneath the robes of the model were two other hidden doors also exposing complicated looking workings and unobstructed views. The design allowed the public to view every conceivable angle and still maintain its novel illusion.

What was the secret? A movable seat had been installed allowing the person inside to slide from place to another. In this manner, no matter which doors were opened the operator inside could elude detection.

As a further means of misdirecting the audience, the machine came with a small wooden box that the presenter placed on the top of the cabinet. Kempelen would often stare it as if it controlled some facet of the machine.

During those unenlightened, superstitious times it would not have been uncommon for some to believe the box had some kind of supernatural power. A story is told of an elderly lady, who remembered superstitious tales she had heard in her youth. During one exhibition she hid in a window seat, as far away as possible from the “evil spirit” which no doubt, inhabited the infernal machine.

Another part of the machine's performance was completing the “Knight’s tour,” a complicated and difficult chess puzzle. The puzzle requires moving a knight around a chessboard, touching each square once along the way. Although most experienced chess players of the time still wrestled with it, the Turk was capable of completing the tour apparently without any difficulty.

Many books and articles were written during the Turk's life about how it worked. However most were inaccurate. It was not until Dr. Silas Mitchell's series of articles for “The Chess Monthly” the secret was finally revealed. Mitchell ,son of the final private owner, John Kearsley Mitchell, wrote "no secret was ever kept as the Turk's has been. Guessed at, in part, many times, no one of the several explanations ... ever solved this amusing puzzle." As the Turk had been destroyed by fire, Mitchell felt that there were "no longer any reasons for concealing from the amateurs of chess, the solution to this ancient enigma."


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