Maelzel's Chess Player / The Turk | Wolfgang von Kempelen, 1769 - Edgar Allan Poe, 1836

The automated chess player "The Turk," as depicted in an engraving.

"Maelzel's Chess Player" (1836) is an essay by Edgar Allan Poe exposing a fraudulent automaton chess
 player called The Turk, which had become famous in Europe and the United States and toured widely.
 The fake automaton was invented by Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1769 and was brought to the U.S.
in 1825 by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel after von Kempelen's death.

A copper engraving of the Turk, showing the open cabinets and working parts. 
A ruler at bottom right provides scale.

Though he had a long and successful career as a civil servant, von Kempelen was most famous 
for his construction of The Turk, a chess-playing automaton presented to Maria Theresa of 
Austria in 1769. The machine consisted of a life-sized model of a human head and torso, 
dressed in Turkish robes and a turban, seated behind a large cabinet on top of which a 
chessboard was placed.
The machine appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent, 
but was in fact merely an elaborate simulation of mechanical automation: a human chess 
master concealed inside the cabinet puppeteered the Turk from below by means of a series 
of levers. With a skilled operator, the Turk won most of the games played during its 
demonstrations around Europe and the Americas for nearly 84 years, playing and 
defeating many challengers including statesmen such as Napoleon Bonaparte and 
Benjamin Franklin.

 
The secret interior of The Turk

In his essay, Poe asserts that a mechanical chess player would play perfectly, but Maelzel's "machine"
 occasionally errs, and is therefore suspect. Although it is the most famous essay on the Turk, many 
of Poe's hypotheses were incorrect. He also may or may not have been aware of earlier articles 
written in the Baltimore Gazette where two youths were reported to have seen chess player 
William Schlumberger climbing out of the machine.
He did, however, borrow heavily from David Brewster's Letters on Natural Magic.

The essay is important in that it predicts some general motifs of modern science fiction.
Poe also was beginning to create an analytic method that would eventually be used in his 
"tales of ratiocination", the earliest form of a detective story, "The Gold-Bug" and "The 
Murders in the Rue Morgue". This point is furthered in that Poe particularly emphasized
 that a mind was operating the machine.

*
Ambrose Bierce's 1909 short story "Moxon's Master" is about a chess-playing automaton.

Walter Benjamin alludes to the Mechanical Turk in the first thesis of his Theses on the 
Philosophy of History (Über den Begriff der Geschichte), written in 1940.

Poe's "Maelzel's Chess Player" was the inspiration for the television short El jugador de ajedrez aka 
Le joueur d'échecs de Maelzel (1981), directed by Juan Luis Buñuel and shown as part of the 
Poe-series Histoires extraordinaires.


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