The Chess-Playing Robot Hoax Of The 18th Century

“[Chess] is a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing something very clever, when they are only wasting their time. ” —George Bernard Shaw, The Irrational Knot

In A Nutshell

In 1770, an astonishing robot was unveiled that possessed the artificial intelligence needed to defeat any human players in a game of chess. Nicknamed “The Turk,” this animatronic chess champion was created by Wolfgang von Kempelen, and it toured Europe and America until it was destroyed in a fire in 1854. That’s when it was revealed it wasn’t a robot at all, but an elaborate hoax, with a human chess master hiding inside The Turk all along.

The Whole Bushel

If you think that robots and artificial intelligence are modern concepts, you would probably be stunned to learn that as far back as 1770, a machine existed that possessed the intelligence and logic necessary to defeat human opponents in a game of chess. This machine, built by a man named Wolfgang von Kempelen and nicknamed “The Turk” because the animatronic man attached to the large mechanical box wore a turban and toured Europe and America for close to a century, defeating human chess opponents at every stop.

Of course, people were fascinated by von Kempelen’s creation. How could such a thing exist, and how had he come up with such an ingenious piece of advanced engineering? It was simple, actually. He just built the box part of The Turk, which supposedly contained the gears that ran the machine, large enough to house a human being. Instead of any sort of machinery on its interior, The Turk contained a series of chess masters who operated it from the inside.

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Basically, it was a gigantic hoax that fooled the entire world until after it was destroyed in a fire in 1854. Of course, people didn’t just take it at face value; before every match, the audience was shown the interior of the giant box that ran The Turk, and saw a large array of gears and pulleys. What they didn’t know was that after the box was closed back up, the specially recruited chess champion would sneak inside to play the actual game against someone selected from the audience.

Among The Turk’s opponents was Benjamin Franklin, who was fooled along with everyone else who encountered the machine, which was really not much more than a cheap magic trick. (Or, if you’re GOB Bluth, “illusion.”) Of course there were some people who saw through the ruse, including Edgar Allen Poe. Poe wrote an essay full of conjecture about how The Turk must be human-operated, and it turns out he was dead on. What people did not realize until after The Turk was destroyed was that every few weeks, the master of ceremonies at all of its stops, Johann Maelzel, would recruit a new player to cram himself inside to make a little money playing chess.

But not everything that came out of this hoax was bad. First, obviously it was a terrific trick, but secondly, and more importantly, after losing to The Turk twice, a man named Charles Babbage was inspired to create his own machine run by artificial intelligence. His ideas and eventual creations would serve as the basis for the first computers. So basically, that thing you’re reading this on, right now? You can thank an 18th-century Hungarian huckster for that.

Show Me The Proof

BBC News: A Point of View: Chess and 18th Century artificial intelligence
Wired: Monster in a Box