The Right Chemistry: Chess, trickery and a turbaned automaton – Ottawa Citizen

“Witches can only be found where there is ignorance. This man is no more capable of witchcraft than I.” With those words, Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, countered superstitious beliefs of the times and went on to pardon the poor soul who was to be beheaded, accused of practicing witchcraft. The 18th century ruler also supported science, having herself and her children inoculated against smallpox, a controversial procedure at the time. While the queen denounced “black magic,” she was a fan of magic as performed by conjurers.

In 1769, the Holy Roman Empress (another of Maria Theresa’s titles) invited François Pelletier, a performer who had made a name for himself with an act that featured magnets, chemical demonstrations and automata, to put on a show at her palace in Vienna. Being of a curious nature, she asked a member of her court, Wolfgang von Kempelen, to attend the performance, hoping that he would be able to reveal the secrets behind the magic. Kempelen had demonstrated his engineering acumen by designing pumps to drain mines and water works for castles, so it seemed a good bet that he would have some insight into the workings of Pelletier’s effects, particularly his famous automata. But Kempelen was unimpressed by the performance and told the Empress that he would construct a machine that was “much more surprising and deceiving than what they had just witnessed.” Intrigued, she excused him from duties for six months so that he could deliver on his promise.

A recreation of The Turk by famed illusion builder Johnny Gaughan was on display the Genii Magic Convention in Orlando in October 2017.

Joe Schwarcz

Automata, basically machines that perform a sequence of operations powered by some sort of clockwork mechanism, were quite the rage at the time. Ever since French scientist and philosopher René Descartes had suggested in the 17th century that the bodies of animals were nothing more than complex machines, inventors were bent on producing life-like robotic figures with the ingenious use of springs, cogwheels, pistons and camshafts. In 1737, the public was stunned by French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson’s display of “The Flute Player,” a humanoid that actually played music thanks to a network of hidden bellows and springs that responded to the turning of a drum covered with studs of different sizes that activated levers causing the automaton to expel air and move its fingers and lips. Not unlike the idea of punch cards with early computers.

Vaucanson then outdid himself by producing a mechanical “digesting duck” that drank, ate, digested its food, defecated and quacked like a living duck. While the duck was amazing, there was a bit of quackery involved in its “digestion.” Although the bird’s innards were visible, and it seemed as if the food it ate was indeed digested and converted to feces, the fecal pellets it produced actually came from a hidden compartment. Vaucanson’s duck was a brilliant example of engineering coupled with trickery.

Kempelen was determined to impress Maria Theresa by surpassing the automata that had been previously produced. Instead of just repeating a sequence of predetermined moves, his machine would interact with people and demonstrate intelligence! His creation would play chess!

In 1770, Kempelen’s automaton, eventually christened “The Turk,” made its appearance in front of Maria Theresa. A life-size figure of a man wearing a turban and dressed in Turkish robes was seated behind a cabinet that held a chessboard. Kempelen proceeded to sequentially open a set of doors in the cabinet, revealing all sorts of impressive machinery. He even held a candle behind the cabinet with the flame visible from the front, apparently precluding the possibility of an operator being hidden inside the cabinet.

After Kempelen cranked the machine, the Turk’s hand picked up a pawn and made a move on the chessboard. A spectator was invited to respond, and the Turk then made his next move. Within a short time, the Turk was victorious! The audience was flabbergasted. The Turk became famous, eventually touring Europe and America, winning most of its matches, including one against Benjamin Franklin. The machine even played Napoleon who tried to confuse it by making an illegal move to which The Turk responded by sweeping all the men off the board.

Although many believed that The Turk was a true automaton, scientifically minded people were convinced that there had to be a hidden human operator. Edgar Allan Poe wrote an essay in which he maintained that “the only question is of the manner by which human agency is brought to bear.” That secret was revealed in 1857 by Silas Mitchell in whose hands The Turk eventually ended up. Kempelen had designed a brilliant illusion, permitting a hidden chess expert to slide back and forth, staying concealed while the various doors were opened. A clever system of gears allowed him to make moves.

The Turk, then, was not a true automaton, but rather a clever stage illusion. However, it did introduce the concept of artificial intelligence which has now evolved into reality with computer programs routinely beating grand masters. No tricks involved.

Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society ( He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.


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