When we think of robots and artificial intelligence, it’s easy to think that it is a modern 21st century obsession or at least of 20th century science fiction such as Star Trek. This is not entirely the case. One of my favourite works of art I have ever seen is the The beautiful, magical Silver Swan Automaton at The Bowes Museum in fact I’ve seen it twice and I had to video it the second time. Despite knowing exactly how it works, it still ranks as one of the most beautiful and magical things I have ever seen and it was all basically done by clockwork.
For a decidedly different take at automaton, we can leave London and heard to the Hapsburg Empire in Vienna . In the 1770’s an inventor by the name of Wolfgang von Kempelen debuted his latest creation: A chess-playing automaton made for Archduchess Maria Theresa. Known initially as the Automaton Chess Player and later as the Mechanical Turk—or just the Turk—the machine consisted of a mechanical man dressed in robes and a turban who sat at a wooden cabinet that was overlaid with a chessboard. The Turk was designed to play chess against any opponent game enough to challenge him.
At the Viennese court in 1770, Von Kempelen began his demonstration of The Turk’s workings by opening the doors and drawers of the cabinet and shining a candle inside each section. Inside were cogs, gears, and other clockwork. After closing the cabinet doors, von Kempelen invited a volunteer to serve as the Turk’s opponent.
Gameplay began with the Turk moving his head from side to side to survey the board before appearing to decide on the first move. His left arm then reached forward, his fingers picked up a chess piece, moving it to another square before setting it down.
It wasn’t the most beautiful or realistic automaton like the silver swan or Digesting Duck which wiggled its beak, quacked, and pooed out pellets it had been fed nor the Flute Player, an automaton that could mimic almost all of the subtleties of a human flute player’s breathing and musical expression.
Compared to these beautiful clockwork automatons, the Mechanical Turk, with his expressionless face made of carved wood and jerky arm movements, may have seemed an inferior attraction. But with the Mechanical Turk it wasn’t just about looks, it was all about the chess game and the Turk was good. Really good. And it wasn’t just adept at executing a repetitive task. The Turk responded skillfully to the unpredictable behavior of humans. This machine seemed to be operating autonomously, guided by its own sense of rationality and reason. If the human opponent attempted to cheat, as Napoleon did when facing off against the machine in 1809, the Turk would move the chess piece back to its previous position, and, after repeated cheating attempts, would swipe his arm across the board, scattering pieces to the ground.
Of course, there had to be a trick to all of this. But the nature of the deception was, for many decades, elusive. Following the 1770 demonstration, which astonished Maria Theresa and her attendants, von Kempelen, an engineer rather than an entertainer, was content to let the Turk rest and fall into obscurity. The automaton sat forgotten until after Maria Theresa’s death, when her son and successor, Joseph II, remembered the Turk and asked von Kempelen to revive it. In 1783, von Kempelen took the Turk on tour to Paris, where he once again astonished onlookers including a certain Benjamin Franklin.
Tours of England and Germany followed over the next year. During this time, people began to publish their speculative accounts of the Turk’s workings. Some, such as British author Philip Thicknesse, were indignant at the notion that the Turk was a purely mechanical creation whose gameplay was free from human influence. “That an AUTOMATON can be made to move the Chessmen properly, as a pugnacious player, in consequence of the preceding move of a stranger, who undertakes to play against it, is UTTERLY IMPOSSIBLE,” wrote Thicknesse in a critical pamphlet he passion-published in 1784. The capitalisation is as the flabbergasted author originally wrote it!
Thicknesse did not believe, as others did, that von Kempelen was directing the Turk’s gameplay from several feet away using strong magnets, stealthy strings, or remote control. His opinion took the Occam’s Razor approach, with a child-labor twist: He wrote in his pamphlet that the cabinet must be concealing “a child of ten, twelve, or fourteen years of age”—presumably one whose chess talents were prodigious.
The idea that someone was hiding in the cabinet was frequently espoused over the decades, with variations on the size of the hypothetical person as well as their positioning. The cabinet measured four feet long, two-and-a-half feet deep, and three feet high—dimensions that encouraged people to speculate that short-statured people and children were the most likely candidates for the role of hidden Turk operator. Some believed that the concealed person stayed in the cabinet the whole time, using strings, pulleys, and magnets to execute the chess moves, while others thought the operator crawled up into the body of the Turk in order to control him.
There was the complication of the pre-demonstration routine in which von Kempelen would open the cabinet doors and drawers and shine a candle inside, seemingly precluding the presence of a human. But this, too, was cited as a mere trick—in 1789, Freiherr zu Racknitz proposed that the concealed operator hid in the back of the cabinet’s bottom drawer during the pre-game display, then moved to the main portion. Probably similarly to how magicians today hide people in their magic boxes despite showing all tot he audience.
The most outlandish tale of a hidden operator comes from Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, a French magician who encountered the Turk in 1844. According to Robert-Houdin, von Kempelen was in Russia during the 1790s when he met a doctor named Osloff. The doctor was sheltering a fugitive Polish soldier, Worousky, whose legs had been blasted away by a cannonball. This soldier happened to be a gifted chess player. So von Kempelen did what anyone would do in the situation: spent three months building a fradulent humanoid automaton chess player machine equipped with a cabinet large enough to house Worousky, thereby smuggling him out of Russia to safety by touring the automaton through major cities. A foolproof plan if ever there was one so sadly the entire story was total nonsense!
The truth was simple, the Turk did operate via a concealed operator, who controlled each movement from inside the cabinet by candlelight, pulling levers to operate the Turk’s arm and keeping track of the moves on their own board. Von Kempelen, and his Turk-touring successor, Johann Maelzel, picked up new chess players on their travels, gave them a quick how-to orientation, then bundled them into the cabinet.
Though the machine ultimately relied on human behavior and a bit of old-fashioned magic, its convincingly mechanical nature was cause for both wonder and concern. Arriving smack-bang in the middle of the industrial revolution, the Turk raised unsettling questions about the nature of automation and the possibility of creating machines that could think. The fact that the Turk appeared to operate on clockwork mechanisms, complete with whirring sounds, contradicted the idea that chess was, in the words of Robert Willis in 1821, “the province of intellect alone.” If a machine could play a human game at the mercy of the human whims of its opponent, what else could it do?
This was one of the big questions that preoccupied the young mind of Charles Babbage when he first saw the Turk play when it toured England under Maelzel in 1819. Three years later, Babbage began working on the Difference Engine, a machine designed to calculate and tabulate mathematical functions automatically. It was an early step on the path towards computers and artificial intelligence.
Even at the time it made people aware of new possibilities. Unlike the new machines of the industrial revolution, which replaced human physical activity, this fragment of the Difference Engine, like the Turk, raised the possibility that machines might eventually be capable of replacing mental activity too.
In the 1820s and 1830s, Maelzel took the machine for one last tour this time around the northeast United States, during which Edgar Allan Poe developed a fondness for it and wrote his own treatise on the human-assisted operations he assumed were in place during gameplay. But the magicl of the Turk was fading. By the 1850s, with Maelzel having perished during a Turk tour of Cuba, the machine sat forgotten in the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia where sadly it met its demise in a fire in 1854.
In some very obvious ways the Turk could be called a fraud. Obviously without any artificial intelligence or components that were capable of any sort of independent thinking. Even with a human operator so cleverly hidden inside, with its marvellous clockwork mechanisms it brought in an imaginable future of machines that can think for themselves and do so better than humans; something of an ethical conundrum which AI experts and the general public today still struggle with centuries later.