The Turk: An Automaton Chess Player Hoax

In 1767, an extraordinary automaton was designed by a Hungarian inventor named Wolfgang von Kempelen who promised the Empress Maria Theresa, mother to Marie Antoinette, that he would construct an automaton within six months that would amuse, astound, and excite “the liveliest astonishment.” Six months later it appeared Kempelen had succeeded when he presented “The Turk.”

automaton chess player hoax: Marie Theresa

Maria Theresa. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Turk was a life-sized model with a human head and torso that wore a Turban and dressed in Turkish robes. He was seated behind a large cabinet with a chessboard placed in front. The cabinet or chest was three feet and a half long by two feet broad and two and a half feet high. It had castors and could be wheeled where needed. It seemed able to beat any human opponent. However, in actuality, The Turk was an automaton chess player hoax because inside the cabinet was a concealed human puppeteer described as a sort of “Jack-in-the-box.” The puppeteer by means of levers, moved the chess pieces and used strategy to win against his opponents.

Wolfgang von Kempelen. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

During the 84 years that the chess playing automaton The Turk was demonstrated in Europe, people were amazed. Many people attempted to beat him, although some people were superstitious and refused to play it fearing that it was supernatural being. Among the challengers defeated by the Turk were Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. The Turk remained unbeaten until it was defeated in Paris in 1783 by one of the greatest chess players of all time.

Supposedly, Kempelen sold The Turk and revealed its secrets to Frederick the Great, who was fascinated by chess and who “in a moment of liberality … proffered an enormous sum for the purchase of the Automaton and its secret.”[1] Two years after Kempelen died in 1804, The Turk appeared again. This time it was being exhibited by someone new. This exhibitor also demonstrated The Turk in 1819 at Spring Gardens (now known as a street in London). At that time, the following article (provided almost verbatim) appeared describing The Turk:

“At the farther end of the room is a curtain, which, on being drawn aside, exposes the figure of a Turk as large as life, dressed after the Turkish fashion, siting behind a chest of behind a chest of three feet and a half in length, two feet in breadth, and two feet and a half in height, to which it is attached by the wooden seat on which it sits. The chest is placed upon four casters, and together with the figure, may be easily moved to any part of the room. On the plain surface formed by the top of the chest, in the centre, is a raised immovable chess-board of handsome dimensions, upon which the figure has its eyes fixed; its right arm and hand being extended on the chest, and its left arm somewhat raised, as if in the attitude of holding a Turkish pipe, which originally was placed in its hand.

The exhibitor begins by wheeling the chest to the entrance of the apartment within which it stands, and to the face of the spectators. He then opens certain doors contrived in the chest, two in front, and two at the back, at the same time pulling out a long shallow drawer at the bottom of the chest made to contain the chess men, a cushion for the arm of the figure to rest upon, and some counters. Two lesser doors, and a green cloth screen, contrived in the body of the figure, and in its lower parts, are likewise opened, and the Turkish robe which covers them is raised; so that the construction both of the figure and the chest internally is displayed. In this state the automaton is moved round for the examination of the spectators; and to banish all suspicion from the most sceptical mind, that any living subject is concealed within any part of it, the exhibitor introduces a lighted candle into the body of the chest and the figure, by which the interior of each is, in a great measure, rendered transparent, and the most secret corner is shewn. Here, it may be observed, that the same precaution to remove suspicion is used, if requested, at the close as at the commencement of a game of Chess with the Automaton.

The chest is divided by partition, into two unequal chambers. That is to the right of the figure is the narrowest, and occupies scarcely one third of the body of the chest; it is filled with little wheels, levers, cylinders, and other machinery used in clock-work. That to the left contains a few wheels, some small barrels with springs, and two quarters of a circle placed horizontally. The body and lower parts of the figure contain certain tubes which seem to be conductors to the machinery. After a sufficient time, during which each spectator may satisfy his scruples and his curiosity, the exhibitor recloses the doors of the chest and the figure, and the drawer at bottom; makes some arrangements in the body of the figure, winds up the works with a key inserted into a small opening on the side of the chest, places a cushion under the left arm of the figure, which now rests upon it, and invites any individual present to play a game of chess.

The Turk recreation

Re-creation of “The Turk.” Courtesy of Wikipedia

In playing a game, the Automaton makes choice of the white pieces, and always has the first move. These are small advantages towards winning the game which are cheerfully conceded. It plays with the left hand, the right arm and hand being constantly extended on the chest, behind which it is seated. This slight incongruity proceeded from absence of mind in the inventor, who did not perceive his mistake till the machinery of the Automaton was too far completed to admit of the mistake being rectified. At the commencement of a game, the Automaton moves its head, as if taking a view of the board; the same motion occurs at the close of the game. In making a move, it slowly raises its left arm from the cushion placed under it, and directs it towards the square of the piece to be moved. Its hand and fingers open on touching the piece, which it takes up, and conveys to any proposed square. The arm, then, returns with a natural motion onto the cushion upon which it usually rests. In taking a piece, the Automaton makes the same motions of the arm and hand to lay hold of the piece, which it conveys from the board; and then returning to its own piece, it takes it up, and places it on the vacant square. These motions are performed with perfect correctness; and the dexterity with which the arm acts, especially in the delicate operation of castling, seems to be the result of spontaneous feeling, bending at the shoulder, elbow, and knuckles, and cautiously avoiding to touch any other piece than that which is to be moved, nor ever making a false move.

After a move made by its antagonist the automaton remains for a few moments only inactive, as if mediating its next move; upon which the motions of the left arm and hand follow. On giving check to the King, it moves its head as a signal. When a false move is made by its antagonist, which frequently occurs, through curiosity to observe in what manner the Automaton will act; as for instance, if a Knight be made to move like a Castle, the Automaton taps impatiently on the chest, with its right hand, replaces the Knight on its former square, and not permitting its antagonist to recover his move, proceeds immediately to move one of its own pieces: thus appearing to punish him for his inattention. This little advantage in play, which, if hereby gained, makes the Automaton more a match for its antagonist, seems to have been contemplated by the inventor as an additional resource towards winning the game.

The Turk

“The Turk” and Its Interior Cabinet Revealed. Author’s collection.

When the person matched against the automaton has made a move, no alteration in it can take place; and if a piece be touched, it must be played somewhere. This rule is strictly observed by the Automaton. If its antagonist hesitates to move for a considerable time, it taps smartly on the top of the chest with the right hand, which is constantly extended upon it, as if testifying impatience at his delay.

During the time that the Automaton is in motion, a low sound of clock-work running down is heard, which ceases soon after its arm returns to the cushion; and then its antagonist may make his move. The works are wound up intervals, after ten or twelve moves, by the exhibitor, who is usually employed in walking up and down the apartment in which the Automaton is shown, approaching, however, the chest from time to time, especially on its right side.”[2]

One Victorian newspaper, The Star, clarified how The Turk operated, reporting:

“At the commencement of the exhibition, on every occasion, the operator of the automaton sat behind the mock machinery of the smaller of the two upper compartments of the chest, his legs occupying the hidden portion of the drawer. Then the front doors of both apartments were opened at the same; a lighted candle was placed in the large one, so that it could be distinctly seen that the space not occupied by the quadrants and other instruments was vacant. Another candle was placed, not in, but in front of, the other apartment, which was apparently completely filled with machinery. Next, after closing the doors the exhibitor turned the automaton round, so as to show the back of the chest to the spectators. While this was being done the concealed operator moved into the large compartment, closing after him the sliding panel. In this position, he remained until the back door of the small compartments had been opened and shut again. Thus by these ingenious contrivances the spectators were led to believe that it was quite impossible that anyone could be hidden in the chest. As regards the Turk seated cross legged on the box, it was perfectly obvious that, putting aside the fact that his body was shown to be occupied by machinery, the figure was not large enough to hold a human being.”[3]

The Turk and how it operated

Illustration of “The Turk” and How a Human Operated it Without Being Detected. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1865 The Turk was taken to America where it was destroyed in a fire at a New York theatre. However, two hours before it was destroyed, two boys claimed to have seen a man getting out of the cabinet, but those who heard the boys were said to have paid little attention to their statement.


  • [1] “The Automaton Chess-Player Redivius,” in The Illustrated London News, 20 December 1845, p. 5.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] “The Automaton Chess-Player,” in The Star, 1 October 1885. p. 4.

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