The Turk

Chess Player

Born: 1770
Died: 1854 (destroyed in a fire)
Birthplace: Austria
Best known as:

The machine that seemed to play chess

A chess-playing automaton, the Turk was a sensation in Europe in the 1770s. The Turk was a wooden cabinet on wheels, atop which sat a chessboard and a life-sized wooden mannequin dressed in Turkish style. This mysterious contraption would play against, and often defeat, human opponents. In truth the Turk was a clever illusion: the cabinet concealed a human chess expert who moved the Turk's arm and played the games. The Turk was created by Wolfgang von Kempelen, a courtier of the empress Maria Therese. His creation was such a smashing success that it toured Europe, confounding observers and defeating dozens of players (including Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin). Ownership of the Turk eventually passed to Johann Maelzel, who took it to America where it toured anew. The Turk finally passed out of fashion and ended up in Philadelphia, where it was destroyed in a fire in 1854.

Extra credit:

Author Edgar Allan Poe wrote a widely-read 1836 essay proposing that the Turk concealed a human player... The Turk inspired a 1927 French film, The Chess Player (Le Joueur d'échecs), with actor Charles Dullin as von Kempelen; it was remade in 1938 with Conrad Veidt as von Kempelen.

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