The Mechanical Turk, or the Chess-Playing Machine that Beat Napoleon, by Eliza Shearer

The Mechanical Turk, or the Chess-Playing Machine that Beat Napoleon, by Eliza Shearer

It was the year 1809. The Napoleonic Wars were in full swing, but the French general had other interests besides fighting the British over Spain and Portugal. 

Around the time Jane Austen and her mother and sister moved to Chawton and took possession of their new home, courtesy of Jane’s brother Edward, Napoleon arrived in Vienna. His destination was the breathtaking Schönbrunn palace.

Schönbrunn Schloss (meaning “Beautiful Spring Palace”) is utterly charming, as I was lucky to appreciate during the summer I spent in Vienna, many moons ago. The palace was built as the Austrian’s answer to Versailles. But Napoleon wasn’t there to admire the architecture, but to encounter a very special enemy. 

For the Pleasure of the Empress 

Napoleon visited Schönbrunn with a very particular purpose in mind: to play a game of chess against the famous Turk, a chess-playing machine designed to beat all opponents. The automaton was built by Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770 under instructions by Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. The Empress was interested in science and its crossover with illusionism, and Kempelen was only too pleased to oblige. 

Kempelen’s invention consisted of a large table-height wooden cabinet with doors to one side. The cabinet was three-and-a-half feet long and two feet wide, and it was topped with a chessboard. Next to it sat a human-sized model of a man wearing a traditional Ottoman costume (turban and pipe included) supposedly capable of playing chess – and defeating all human opponents. 

By 1809, The Turk had had an eventful existence. After a glorious few years entertaining local and foreign nobility in the Austrian court with its chess mastery, it had been exhibited all over Europe. It drew crowds in Paris, where it played (and won) against Benjamin Franklin, then US ambassador in France. It was subsequently shown in London, Leipzig, Dresden and Amsterdam. 

The French Emperor’s Combative Style

After Kempelen’s death, the machine went into storage until it was bought by another inventor,  Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, in 1805. The Turk was repaired and given a new lease of life. It was shortly after this that the automaton piqued Napoleon’s interest, and the Emperor of the French demanded to play against it.

The Turk usually had the white chess pieces, and hence had the first move of the game. But Napoleon wanted to go first, and moved one of his pieces before the automaton could move his. The Turk returned Napoleon’s piece to the original position. Napoleon tried the same move again; the same thing happened. 

True to his style, Napoleon insisted a third time, but the Turk had had enough. The mechanical arm swiped the chess board and all pieces fell to the floor. This time, the French ruler got the message, and accepted that the Turk should have the first move. The game that followed was short. After 19 moves, and barely twenty minutes, Napoleon was beaten. 

An Ingenious Device with a Tragic End

As you may have suspected, the Turk wasn’t actually a chess-playing machine. Inside the large box was a complex set-up designed to trick the eye. Although the cabinet doors, once open, showed clockwork parts, behind it was a hidden compartment with enough room for a chess master to hide and follow – and respond to – the game

The chess master in the cabinet was able to control the model’s arm through the use of levers capable of picking up and moving the chess pieces. Furthermore, he was able to communicate with the presenter outside via a clever code using turnable brass discs. The overall effect was very realistic and left audiences marvelled (you can check out some of the Turk’s games here). 

After defeating Napoleon, the Turk embarked on another long and successful European tour. In 1826, the Turk made it to New York City and Boston, then back to Europe only to return to the US in 1829, inspiring Edgar Allan Poe to write an essay on the automatonFrom the United States, Maezel took the Turk to Cuba, but after his death at sea in 1838, the machine was forgotten again. It eventually ended up in a corner of the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia, where it lay abandoned until it was devoured by a fire in 1854. 

Today, playing chess against a machine is no biggie: anybody with a mobile phone can do it. But back in the Regency, it must have felt magical. The Turk was just an illusion, but one that, according to legend, became a reality. It is said that a young Charles Babbage saw The Turk in action. Although he was convinced it was a hoax, the automaton got him thinking about intelligent machines, and inspired his work on the Difference Engine, a mechanical calculator that, after input from Ada Lovelace, would become an early model for a computer. 

But that’s a story for another day. 


What do you make of the invention, particularly if you are a chess aficionado? Have you ever seen automatons in action? 


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[…] This article originally appeared in […]

May 1, 2021 3:15 PM

Fascinating post.

Caryl Kane
Caryl Kane
April 27, 2021 7:31 PM

Fascinating post!

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
April 27, 2021 11:17 AM

Great post! I am not very good at chess,but I like checkers!lol Chess is fun of you know how to play. It seems like they were trying to mechanize games before the internet came!

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
April 27, 2021 11:03 AM

Amazing research. I figured Napoleon’s temper would get the best of him and do something to the machine. It’s funny that he yielded seeing as he was such a commander that conquered all before him. Thanks for sharing.

Regina Jeffers
April 27, 2021 7:39 AM

I love these quirky tales that are not part of history books. Thanks for sharing this.

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