The Turk

Engraving of the Turk
Engraving of the Turk

The Turk was a famous hoax which purported to be a chess-playing automaton first constructed and unveiled in 1769 by Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804). It had the appearance of a maplewood cabinet 4 feet long by 2 feet deep and 3 feet high, with a mannequin dressed in cloak and turban seated behind it. The cabinet had doors that opened to reveal internal clockwork mechanisms, and when activated the mechanism appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent. It could also perform the knight's tour (a puzzle which requires the player to pass every square of a chess board once) with ease. However, the cabinet was a cleverly constructed illusion that allowed a man to hide inside and operate the mannequin.


The beginning

Kempelen first exhibited the Turk at the court of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa in 1770, and later took it on a tour of Europe for several years during the 1780s. During this time the Turk was exhibited in Paris where Benjamin Franklin played it and lost. Kempelen eventually decided that the Turk was occupying too much of his time and consigned it to a corner of the Austrian palace, and focused on other forms of automata. In 1789, Freiherr Joseph Friedrich zu Racknitz built a duplicate Turk and wrote a book suggesting how it might work, published in Dresden. Although his explanation was correct in some parts, the explanation resulted in a Turk which could only be operated by a child or dwarf, and the measurements of Racknitz's Turk were not the same as Kempelen's.

The Turk's zenith

After Kempelen's death in 1804, the Turk passed through many hands, eventually ending up with Johann Maelzel. The secret of its operation was well-kept, however, and although many people suspected it was a hoax, the details were slow to trickle out and sufficient mystique remained for the Turk to continue his tours. In 1809 the Turk defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at Schönbrunn, during the Wagram campaign. (See below for a record of this game.)

Maelzel took the Turk to play in France and in England, but due to mounting debts, fled Europe to exhibit the Turk in the United States of America. While in England in 1820, Charles Babbage, the computing pioneer, played against the Turk.

The Turk's tour of the United States was a success, and Maelzel decided to bring the Turk to Cuba as the first leg of a South American tour. However, while there, his secretary and confidante, William Schlumberger, passed away. Many reports indicate that he was the man inside the Turk who actually played the games; he was an expert chess player. Whether or not this is true, afterward the rest of Maelzel's party deserted him, and the bankrupt Maelzel reluctantly sailed back to the United States. On board the ship, he took to drinking alone in his cabin and as the voyage neared its end, Maelzel was found dead in his cabin, and buried at sea.

The final years

The Turk was then auctioned off, and the new owner in turn sold it to Dr John Mitchell, a Professor of Medicine and Surgery, who had founded a club for the express purpose of purchasing the Turk. In return for a fee, he would reveal the Turk's secret to the club's members. Although Mitchell enjoyed moderate success exhibiting the Turk at first, he lacked Maelzel's showmanship, and eventually gave it to a museum in Philadelphia. In 1854, 85 years after its construction, the Turk was destroyed in the great Philadelphia fire. Mitchell's son, Silas Mitchell, eventually published a book on the Turk explaining its secrets. At least 15 chess experts and masters had operated the Turk over its history. It prompted numerous books and pamphlets, none of which ever quite guessed its secret.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote an exposé of the automaton, much of it cribbed from an earlier English account, in 1835. The format of his report on the Turk prefigured his later invention of the detective story.

"Upon beating the game, he waves his head with an air of triumph, looks round complacently upon the spectators, and drawing his left arm farther back than usual, suffers his fingers alone to rest upon the cushion." - Maelzel's Chess-Player by Edgar Allan Poe

The Turk's secret

The secret of the Turk was due to the foldable nature of the compartments within the Turk's cabinet, and the fact that the "machinery" and a drawer in the cabinet did not extend all the way to the back of it. Within the cabinet was a secondary chessboard, which the operator used to follow the game. The bottom of the main chessboard which the Turk itself played on had a spring beneath every square, and each piece contained a magnet. This intricate system was used to indicate to the operator which piece had moved and to where. The operator made his move with the use of a special device which could be fitted into special holes on the secondary chessboard to indicate to the Turk where to move.

(There are also many Turk-related myths that refuse to die: Kempelen was not a Baron; he was not known as Farkas, or at least not until his biography was rewritten by Hungarian nationalists after his death; the Turk was never operated by a legless war veteran, and could accommodate a full-sized man; and it never played against Frederick the Great.)


Title page Racknitz
Title page Racknitz
Copper engraving Racknitz
Copper engraving Racknitz
Copper engraving Racknitz
Copper engraving Racknitz
Copper engraving Racknitz
Copper engraving Racknitz
Copper engraving Racknitz
Copper engraving Racknitz
Missing image
Title page Windisch
Copper engraving Windisch
Copper engraving Windisch
Copper engraving Windisch
Copper engraving Windisch
Copper engraving Windisch
Copper engraving Windisch

The game against Napoleon

Here is a record of the game which Napoleon Bonaparte played and lost against the Turk (in standard algebraic chess notation):

1. e4 e5 2. Qf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. Ne2 Bc5 5. a3 d6 6. O-O Bg4 7. Qd3 Nh5 8. h3 Bxe2 9. Qxe2 Nf4 10. Qe1 Nd4 11. Bb3 Nxh3+ 12. Kh2 Qh4 13. g3 Nf3+ 14. Kg2 Nxe1+ 15. Rxe1 Qg4 16. d3 Bxf2 17. Rh1 Qxg3+ 18. Kf1 Bd4 19. Ke2 Qg2+ 20. Kd1 Qxh1+ 21. Kd2 Qg2+ 22. Ke1 Ng1 23. Nc3 Bxc3+ 24. bxc3 Qe2# 0-1

External links


  • Karl Friedrich Hindenburg. Ueber den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen. Nebst einer Abbildung und Beschreibung seiner Sprechmaschine. Leipzig, 1784.
  • Gerald M. Levitt. The Turk, chess automaton. McFarland & Company, Incorporated Publishers, 2000. ISBN 0786407786.
  • Joseph Friedrich Freyherr zu Racknitz. Ueber den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen und dessen Nachbildung. Mit sieben Kupfertafeln. Leipzig und Dresden, 1789.
  • Tom Standage. The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine. Berkley Publishing Group, 2003. ISBN 0425190390.
  • Tom Standage. The Mechanical Turk: The True Story of the Chess Playing Machine That Fooled the World. Penguin Books, 2003. ISBN 014029919X.
  • Robert Willis. An attempt to analyse the automation chess player of Mr. Kempelen. J. Booth, London, 1821.
  • Karl Gottlieb von Windisch. Briefe über den Schachspieler des Hrn. von Kempelen, nebst drey Kupferstichen die diese berühmte Maschine vorstellen. Basel, Schweiz, 1783.
  • Der Schachautomat des Baron von Kempelen. Mit einem Nachwort von Marion Faber. Harenberg Kommunikation, Dortmund 1983. ISBN 3883793671.
  • Maelzel's chess player ( by Edgar Allan Poe (full text online).de:Schachtürke

nl:Turk (schaakmachine)


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