CNN: The Chess Automaton rediscovered

by ChessBase
6/12/2002 – It was the Deep Blue of its time, a turban-wearing automaton that defeated all comers. Now a new book about Baron von Kempelen's famous "Turk" has appeared. As CNN reports the author also discovered a reconstruction of the automaton in a magician and prop-maker's workshop in Los Angeles. Read all about the first chess machine here.

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The first chess machine

In 1769 the Hungarian engineer Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen built a chess playing machine for the amusement of the Austrian Queen Maria Theresia. It was a purely mechanical device, shaped like a Turk. Naturally its outstanding playing strength was supplied by a chess master cleverly hidden inside the device. The machine was a fake.

CNN writes:

The story of the Turk begins in 1769 with a Hungarian nobleman named Wolfgang von Kempelen. Challenged to come up with something better than what he had seen at a conjuring show, he produced the Turk, a mechanical man positioned over a chessboard. At performances, Kempelen would open the doors and cubbyholes in the platform underneath the chessboard, revealing a latticework of gears and machinery, then challenge audience members to play the Turk. Almost all were defeated.

Though some people suspected there was a trick involved, nobody could figure it out, and the automaton attracted crowds wherever Kempelen took it. And, with his pedigree, he took it to royal courts all over Europe.

Eventually, the Turk passed into the hands of inventor Johann Maelzel, who took it to America for several years. It drew huge crowds in the United States as well. Maelzel died in 1838, 12 years after coming to America. It wasn't until 1857 -- three years after the Turk had been destroyed in a fire -- that the son of the machine's final owner revealed its secret: an expert chess player hiding in its cleverly adjustable innards. New players would be drafted at points during the Turk's travels. The Turk wasn't "thinking" -- but it was an effective illusion.

Edgar Allan Poe, the creator of the modern detective story, wrote an notable essay about . Magicians based illusions on it. And it provoked questions about what we now call "artificial intelligence."

Poe's article

We provide you with extensive excerpts from Poe's famous article (link below). It is a fascinating read, but it does contain some dubious passages. We could hardly supress a smile to read the following logic by the Great Detective:

"The Automaton does not invariably win the game. Were the machine a pure machine this would not be the case – it would always win. The principle being discovered by which a machine can be made to play a game of chess, an extension of the same principle would enable it to win a game – a farther extension would enable it to win all games – that is, to beat any possible game of an antagonist."

Tell this to modern-day chess programmers!



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