In 1770, Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian-born inventor who was something of the “Doc Brown” of 18th century Europe, unveiled an amazing new machine at the court of Austrian Empress Maria Teresa: the Automaton, or “Turk,” a mechanical robot that could beat human opponents at chess. The robot was a half-figure of a man, dressed in Turkish costume and wearing a turban, embedded in a large wooden box which contained the gears and mechanism that operated it, the top of which was the chess board. The Turk featured realistic articulated arms and hands which could swivel and manipulate the pieces as it played chess. Built in a society without superconductors, microchips or even electricity, the Turk was an advance in robotics technology at least 200 years ahead of its time.

Von Kempelen did not reveal the secret of the Turk’s technology, but he wanted everyone to be sure it was genuine. Before beginning each game he would open the cabinet underneath the robot, revealing the mechanical gears and showing that there was no trickery going on.

The Turk was actually very good at chess. On that first day of its exhibition at Schonbrunn Palace in 1770 it defeated Count Ludwig von Cobenzl and several others, and Maria Teresa was predictably amazed. In a lucrative tour across Europe beginning in 1781 the Turk beat future Tsar Paul I of Russia, Benjamin Franklin (then U.S. Ambassador to France), and even François-André Danican Philidor, the best chess player in Europe. Kempelen died in 1804 without ever having revealed the technology behind the robot, but the machine itself “lived” on, being exhibited by a series of owners over the next decades. The Turk went on tour several more times and played many more illustrious opponents, including Napoleon of France, who the Turk defeated in 1809–despite the wily French emperor’s attempts to bamboozle the machine with illegal moves and even wrapping a shawl around its head to obscure its “vision.”

turk workings

Many engineers speculated about the mechanical workings of the “Turk,” drawing elaborate diagrams like this one. Most of the time they were wrong.

In 1826 the Turk, now more than 50 years old and having been reconstructed several times, came to America. The robot occupied various funhouses and starred in numerous exhibitions until it started to wear out its welcome in the 1840s and ’50s. On July 6, 1854, the robot was destroyed when the museum it was then occupying, the Peale Museum in Baltimore, caught fire.

What was the secret? How did von Kempelen manage to construct a thinking, chess-playing robot in the 1760s, long before any of the prerequisites we would assume are needed for robotics–even a basic computer–were invented?

Alas, the secret of the Turk was pretty simple: there was a guy hidden in the box underneath. The whole thing was an elaborate hoax.

Although not a real “robot” as we would think today, the engineering of the fraudulent machine was pretty impressive. A rolling seat concealed the operator, who could move aside and out of sight as von Kempelen or the other exhibitor opened the cabinet to reveal the “gears” inside the machine. The position of the chess pieces on the board above were indicated with magnets, and the operator controlled the movement of the Turk’s arm with a pantograph device. There was even an ingenious ventilation system for the smoke of the candle that had to be lit inside the box so the operator could see what he was doing. Von Kempelen and his successors naturally sought to recruit experienced chess players to operate the machine. One of them blew the whistle, exposing the fraud in a Philadelphia newspaper article in 1837.

benjamin franklin

Benjamin Franklin was just one in the long and illustrious line of the Turk’s defeated chess opponents, but a few people did manage to beat the machine.

Despite this, however, knowledge that the Turk was a hoax did not seem to trickle down into popular consciousness until long after the machine was gone. Various piecemeal articles about how the machine really worked were published, most notably in the late 1850s, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that the true nature of the deception was generally known. In the 1980s, an American magician spent a considerable amount of money building a reconstruction of the Turk. That’s the machine pictured at the top of this article.

You have to hand it to von Kempelen. He constructed one of the most convincing, well-guarded and amusing hoaxes of his age. The Turk was a fraud, but at least it made its creator famous in the annals of the world’s greatest con artists.

The photo of the modern reconstruction of the Turk is by Wikipedia user Carafe, and is used/relicensed under GNU Free Documentation license.