Text: Henry Ridgely Evans, “Main text,” Edgar Allan Poe and Baron von Kempelen’s Chess-Playing Automaton (1939), pp. 13-34 (This material may be protected by copyright)


[page 13:]



IN the old Chinese Museum of Philadelphia (formerly Peale’s), so called because of a collection of Chinese curios displayed in its lower hall, there stood in the year 1840, in a small apartment little frequented by visitors, an automaton figure, forlorn looking and covered with dust. Thousands of people passed through the museum during the fourteen years the android occupied its inconspicuous corner, but no one inquired about it and few ever laid eyes on it; it was to all intents and purposes dead to the world. And yet this automaton had the most romantic history of any piece of mechanism ever constructed by the hand of man. It was none other than Baron von Kempelen’s famous chess-player, which had played games with the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Louis XVIII of France, George III of England, Napoleon I, and, last but not least, with our own beloved Benjamin Franklin, who, as every historian knows, was a lover of chess. It had puzzled the brightest intellects of Europe and America and had created a great sensation wherever it was exhibited. But now there was no one to do it honor; it stood abandoned and neglected in its dark recess, gazing placidly at the frosted glass door of the little room in which it was confined, through which the light of day filtered feebly. Before entering into a description of its construction, its ingenious secret, and its vicissitudes of fortuqe, let me give a brief biographical sketch of its inventor.

Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, an Aulic Councillor of the Royal Chamber of the Hungarian States, was born in Pressburg, Hungary, January 23, 1734, and died in Vienna, Austria, March 26, 1804. He was a man of extraordinary mechanical genius. According to a brochure by K. G. von Windisch, published at Basie, Switzerland, in 1783, he devoted a life-time to mechanics. Among his inventions was a figure which pronounced some thirty words, and a few phrases. (See Mechanismus der menschlichen Sprache, etc. Wien, J. B. Degen, 1791.) [page 14:]

In 1769, while on an official visit to Vienna, Baron von Kempelen received an invitation from the Empress Maria Theresa to be present at an exhibition of magnetical and mechanical experiments of a French gentleman named Pelletier. During the séance, while conversing with the Empress, von Kempelen declared that he felt himself competent to construct a piece of mechanism far more surprising than those which they were witnessing. The Empress took him at his word, and bound him to keep his promise.

In six months the ingenious nobleman produced his famous automaton chess-player, which, when exhibited in social circles in Vienna, created great excitement and admiration. The inventor, in spite of its success, refused to show it in public. He put it aside, and even took it to pieces, and for several years it was not used. Finally, during a visit of the Grand Duke Paul of Russia to the court of Vienna, the chess-player was again brought to light and exhibited by the wish of the Empress. Subsequently von Kempelen presented it in public, and it was shown throughout Germany.

In 1783 the automaton was brought to Paris, and exhibited at the Café de la Régence, the rendezvous of chess-players — a resort once frequented by Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Maximilien Robespierre. In this historic old café the automaton was vanquished in an encounter with the celebrated chess-players, Philidor and Légal. While in Paris, Baron von Kempelen sent a special invitation to Benjamin Franklin, who was sojourning at Passy, to play a game with the android. Franklin complied, and, like many others, was worsted in the game. Von Kempelen’s letter to the American statesman and philosopher is in the possession of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, Pa. After being exhibited for some time in Paris the automaton was taken to Berlin, where it played a game with Frederick the Great and beat the snuff-besmirched old warrior badly. Frederick was more skillful in playing the flute than in playing chess. Some writers contend that the android was sold to Frederick in 1785; but this is not true, for von Kempelen owned it to the day of his death, March 26, 1804, and his son disposed of it to a Bavarian mechanic, J. N. Maelzel, inventor of the metronome, a device well known to musicians.(2) [page 15:]


MANY were the attempts to discover the principle of the automaton in von Kempelen’s time, the best solution being that of Freiherr Joseph von Racknitz, of Dresden, in 1789. But it was not until Maelzel came into possession of the figure that an authoritative explanation of its mechanism was given to the public. This was in 1834, when Mouret, a French chess-player, who had been in the employ of the exhibitor, revealed the fact, which many keen observers had suspected, that the automaton was operated by a concealed assistant-in other words that it was a sham android. On data furnished by Mouret was based an article entitled “Automate joueur d’échecs,” which was published in the Magazin Pittoresque (Paris), for 1834.

Dr. J. K. Mitchell, a noted chess-player of Philadelphia, wrote the following explanation of the automaton, which was published in The Chess Monthly, New York, 1857, Vol. I, pp. 41-45:

“The chess-player was a figure habited like a Turk, seated cross- legged behind a rectangular chest or box three feet and a half long, two feet wide, and two and a half feet high. To the chest was permanently attached a wooden shelf on which the figure sat. On the top of the chest was an immovable chess-board, upon which the eyes of the android were fixed. The right hand and arm of the automaton were extended on the chest, while its left hand held a long pipe. The chest was placed on castors, which enabled the exhibitor to move it occasionally from one part of the seance-room to another, the object being to convince the spectators that no trap door in the floor communicated with the chest. The left arm of the automaton, part of a pantograph, communicated, through its body, with the interior of the chest, where, by means of a lever, the operator, concealed within it, was enabled to give every desired motion to the arm, hand, and fingers of the figure.

“The chest was divided into two compartments above, and a drawer beneath, in the latter of which the chessmen were kept. In the smaller compartment, occupying about a third of the longitudinal dimensions of the box, were placed a number of pieces of brass, made very thin, and designed only for the purpose of deception, as they were no part of the machinery by which the moves of the game were made. In the larger compartment were also seen similar pieces of brass, representing quad rants and other philosophical [page 16:] instruments, designed to give the impression that they conduced, as they did not, to the movements of the automaton. The drawer, which when drawn out, seemed to be of the entire horizontal dimensions of the chest, was also deceptive, as its back end was so constructed as to move upon wheels, by means of which it did not press backwards with the sides more than a foot and a half; whilst it was caught by these sides, and drawn forward, as the drawer was opened, and therefore gave to the drawer the appearance of being two feet six in breadth or depth. Behind this movable back of the drawer, there was therefore left an unoccupied space of the whole length of the chest, and rather more than a foot in breadth. In this trough was fixed an iron railroad, nearly three feet in length, upon which was placed a low seat, resting upon iron runners, adjusted to the rails beneath it. Upon this sat the operator, who was able by the greased runners, to slide backwards and forwards upon the rails without quitting his seat, which he occupied throughout the exhibition. His legs were extended horizontally behind the drawer.

“At the commencement of the entertainment , the operator sat behind the mock machinery of the smaller compartment, concealed by a door which divided it into two parts. In front he was concealed by a similar door, which closed, on that side, the larger section of the box, and made it appear complete when opened for inspection. These two doors were made of half the thickness of the partition, so that when they were both closed, or placed in contact, each compartment exhibited a partition of a thickness equal to that of the rest of the partition, giving smoothness and uniformity to the dividing wall. When the apparatus was ready for exhibition, the two front doors were opened at once; a lighted candle was placed in the larger, and another was held in front of the smaller compartment, which was apparently filled with machinery. After closing these doors, the whole chest was turned round, so as to show the back of it to the spectators. While this was doing, the concealed operator slid forward into the larger compartment, pulling the thin door after him, and pushing before him the similar door in front of him. This movement was sometimes made before the chest was turned round, and before the front door of the smaller compartment was closed, at which time Maelzel usually held a light at the window in the back of it, to show that no one was concealed in it. As the player slid into the larger compartment, he was compelled to flex his knees, for which action provision was made by means of a division in its floor, which was filled up by the knees as they were bent, and which was again let down when he slid back to his first position. The floor thus formed a table for him.” [page 17:]

Doctor Mitchell, at this juncture, neglects to note that the exhibitor, Maelzel, always opened a window in the back of the figure, in order to show that no one was concealed therein — a very important proceeding if the spectators were to be convinced that the android was really a machine and filled with clockwork devices, etc.

“The whole apparatus, except the small window behind, having been closed,” continues Doctor Mitchell, “the operator, amidst the clatter of noisy machinery, began to arrange himself for the game. This he did by swinging the whole interior furniture-wheels, partitions, and all — against the outer doors and walls of the cabinet, so as to throw all the subdivisions into one large compartment. Having accomplished the foregoing feat, the concealed player took down the green baize by which the box was lined, and exhibited the under side of its top, and, a compartment in the body of the Turk, where burned a light carefully hidden until required for use.

“On the under side of the chest appeared a chess-board, directly beneath that upon the upper surface, upon which the game was played. Each square was excavated so as to make the board between the opposite squares very thin. The squares were numbered from one to sixty-four, under each of which hung a little lever, well balanced, to which was attached a small disk of iron. These disks, when attracted by magnets placed on the top of the box, swung up into the excavations and remained there quietly until liberated by the removal of the magnets, when they vibrated for some seconds, like a well-hung bell. In front of the concealed operator was placed, by proper means, another chess-board, firmly fixed. This was also numbered to correspond exactly to that above his head, and was perforated by holes like a marine chess-board (that is to say a chess- board used when playing games at sea); in order to prevent the possibility of his chessmen being disarranged. Each of the latter was furnished with a peg, suited to the size of the apertures in the board. Another hole was seen on each square of the player’s board, into which for greater exactness, the steel point of the lower end of the pantograph might be inserted, so as to bring the Turk’s hand directly upon the proper place above.

“When entirely prepared for action, the concealed player inti- mated his wish to begin, which was done by signals made at the back window of the box. If a whole game was to be played, which Maelzel agreed to only when sure of victory, he placed the pieces which contained no magnets next to the automaton, and the other set, holding magnets in their interior, next to its adversary. The operator within the cabinet could easily tell when this was done, for [page 18:] all the iron disks beneath the magnetized chessmen settled against the top of his compartment, and all the others stood still in a pendulous posture, ready for action. As the automaton always claimed the first move, the operator, acting for it, first advanced a chessman on his own marine board, and then, af ter starting some noisy wheels, made for the sake of sound, seized the pantograph, and lifted it up, by which the Turk’s arm was raised to a proper height. He then advanced it to the proper square of his board, where by means of a slight rotation, he opened the Turk’s fingers, brought them down over the proper pawn, closed the hand, again lifted up the arm and deposited the chessman in the desired spot. Of course he knew this move, which had already been made on his own chess-board. When the opponent made his move, one of the disks already described, fell as he lifted his magnetic chessman, and began to swing freely, so as to give time to the man in the interior to observe it and make the move over again upon his own board. As the chessman on the outside of the top of the chest alighted on an unoccupied square, its proper disk ascended and clung to the inside. Thus, without any other trouble than that of repeating each of the adversary’s moves upon his own board, the operator pursued his game to the end.

“When first exhibited by von Kempelen, the automaton had probably no miniature railroad and movable seat, and the operator, necessarily a small person, lay at length behind the drawer, until the chest had been carefully closed again. As great chess-players are not always diminutive personages, the exhibitor of the automaton was finally necessitated to arrange the interior so as to conceal even a tall man. . . . To secure his automaton from all hazard of defeat by an abler adversary, end-games were usually played. These were so contrived as to enable the android, which always took in such cases the first move, to make that move a fatal one. These end-games — seventeen in number — were represented in a little book, of which Maelzel had one copy to present to the adversary, and another was in the possession of the concealed player.”

The opinions expressed by Prof. Robert Willis, Sir David Brew- ster, and other writers that the operator of the automaton was partly concealed in the Turk’s body, when a game was in progress, and that he observed the chess-board on the top of the cabinet through peep-holes in the automaton’s breast, must be abandoned, if we are to accept the explanation of Doctor Mitchell, who finally owned the figure.

Doctor Mitchel’s exposé of the secret workings of the automaton, [page 19:] however, did not go unchallenged. It was criticized in some material points by Prof. George Allen, of the University of Pennsylvania, as follows:

“The exhibitor of the android did not open all of the front doors at once, nor was the concealed operator, at the moment when the opening of the doors began, in the smaller compartment. It is clear from the various accounts (those of Racknitz, Windisch, etc.), that both Kempelen and Maelzel always pursued the same routine, viz., they first opened the door of the smaller compartment, and then held the candle at the little window in the rear, while the operator sat in the larger compartment. Next the drawer was pulled out; then the two doors of the larger compartment were opened — the operator having slid into the smaller compartment, while the exhibitor was coming deliberately around to the front again, and pulling out the drawer. Doctor Mitchell says that the doors were all shut, before the machine was turned about to show the back, and that it was af ter the doors had been closed, and after the machine had been turned round, that the operator slid from the one compartment into the other. Both of these statements are incorrect. The operator shifted his position while the machine was still facing the spectators; and while the machine was wheeling round, on its castors, the front doors were all flying loosely about. The proceeding described by Doctor Mitchell would have seriously weakened the demonstration, that there was no man inside; while the sublime effrontery of the actual process was a Q. E. D. that left not a word to say — I may add, that in another place, by a mere misprint, the player’s knees are said to ‘fill up’ — it should have been ‘lift up’ — the floor. . . . Doctor Mitchell says that Kempelen did not conceal his player in the simple but wonderfully ingenious way that made the glory of the automaton in Maelzel’s time, but made him lie at length behind the drawer, and could therefore have nobody but a dwarf, or a very short man (less than four feet ) for an operator. There is not the slightest foundation for this injustice done to the genius of Kempelen-an injustice perfectly innocent, however, on the part of Doctor Mitchen: The case was this: A friend lent Doctor Mitchell Racknitz’s pamphlet, with its seven plates. Not reading German at all, Doctor Mitchell supposed these plates to be bona fide representations of Kempelen’s automaton, whereas they really were drawings of an automaton of Racknitz’s own, which he had constructed in order to demonstrate that Kempelen’s might be worked by a man inside. Now Racknitz, who guessed so perfectly the true way of becoming acquainted with the adversary’s [page 20:] moves, failed entirely in discovering the manner of concealing the player. He hid his player behind the drawer, and made him figure accordingly in Plate IV, where Doctor Mitchell saw him, and took him for an operator of Herr von Kempelen’s.” (The Book of the First American Chess Congress, New York, 1859, foot-note, pp. 480-81.)

Professor Allen pays a well-deserved compliment to Freiherr von Racknitz, when he speaks of him as “having guessed so perfectly the true way of becoming acquainted with the adversary’s moves.” Von Racknitz, in his monograph, Ueber den Schachspieler des Herrn van Kempelen und dessen Nachbildung, pp. 33-37, explains in detail his manner of enabling the concealed confederate to successfully play the game, without actually seeing the chess- board on the top of the cabinet. In some particulars it resembles von Kempelen’s method. Magnets were concealed in the chessmen. But instead of little levers, to which were attached disks of iron, von Racknitz. had recourse to highly magnetized needles, fixed in a certain way in the hollowed-out squares on the under side of the table, directly beneath the real chess-board. The hidden player in von Racknitz’s machine also used a marine chess-board, and his work was illumined by several lamps. Owing to the fact that the illustration facing page 19 depicts the cabinet with the top removed, the mechanism of the secret chess-board is not apparent to the reader.

In Hutton’s Mathematical Dictionary, under the subject of automata, is the following interesting statement:”Mr. Thomas Collinson, nephew to the late Peter Collinson, F. R. S., writes to Doctor Hutton, that about the year 1790, he called on M. de Kempelen, at Vienna, but found him quite silent on the subject of the chess-player . The reason of this, he says, he found out at Dresden, where he got acquainted with a gentleman of rank and talents, named Joseph Frederick Freyhere [Freiherr Joseph Friedrich von Racknitz], who was supposed completely to have discovered the vitality and soul of the chess-playing figure. This gentleman had written a treatise on the subject, in the German language, . . . a copy of which he presented to Mr. Collinson . . . . ‘A well-taught boy,’ remarks Mr. Collinson. ‘very thin and small of his age (sufficiently so that he could be concealed in a drawer almost immediately under the chess-board) agitated the whole.’”

The principle of the pantograph, according to Mr. Collinson, was utilized to give the necessary motions to the android. The Edinburgh Encyclopedia (1830) suggests that a simple heterodromous lever would have sufficed to operate the arm of the Turk. [page 21:]

Von Kempelen’s automaton was able to move its head and roll its eyes. Prior to beginning a game of chess, the pipe held by the android was removed by the exhibitor, in order to enable the figure to play, for strange to relate it made all moves with its left hand, a fact attributed to a mistake in the construction of the machine. “Before beginning a game,” says Arprey Vere, in his Ancient and Modern Magic, London, 1879, “the exhibitor wound up the works with a key inserted into a small opening in the side of the cabinet, placed a cushion beneath the arm of the figure, and then challenged any one of the company present to play a game with it. .. . While and after his opponent made a move, the figure paused for a few moments as though contemplating its own. It intimated with a nod of the head when it gave check to the king. If its adversary made a false move, the automaton rapped on the chest with its right hand, shook its head, and replaced the offending piece in its former position. [In Maelzel’s time, the automaton was rendered vocal, for it uttered the word echec when its opponent was checkmated.] During the time the arm was in motion, a low sound of clockwork running down was distinctly heard. The works were wound up at intervals by the exhibitor. . . .

“The machinery was ostentatiously displayed when at rest; but carefully secluded from view while in motion. By this means the spectator could not form any judgment as to whether the machinery was in any way connected with the automaton . There never was any variation in the method of opening the several doors. When winding up the clockwork, the key always made a certain number of revolutions, whether the motions of the figure, owing to the exigencies of the game, were more varied or protracted than usual.”

The whirring of the machinery, heard during the progress of a game, was, of course, simply a blind. It subserved to induce the spectators to believe that the automaton was really operated by ingenious clockwork.

We have it also on the authority of Signor Antonio Blitz, the celebrated conjurer, who was intimate with Maelzel and gave exhibitions in conjunction with him, that a human being directed the movements of the chess-player. In his Fifty Years in the Magic Circle, 1871, Blitz writes as follows: “The chess-player was ingeniously constructed-a perfect counterpart of a magician’s trick table, with a variety of partitions and doors, which while they removed every possible appearance of deception, only produced greater mystery, and provided more security to the invisible player.”

Blitz gives us the name of Maelzel’s confederate, a man named William Schulumberger, a broken-down chess expert, whom the exhibitor [page 22:] picked up in Paris at the Café de la Regénce. Schlumberger, a native of Alsace, was a fine linguist, and acted as Maelzel’s secretary and clerk. Prof . George Allen, who also was intimate with Maelzel, verifies the fact that Schlumberger was the motive power of the automaton. Occasionally Schlumberger would over-indulge in wine, and as a result would be beaten, while acting as the deus ex machina of the Turk. “On one occasion,” says Professor Allen, “just as Maelzel was bringing the automaton out from behind the curtain, a strange noise was heard to proceed from its interior organization, something between a rattle, a cough, and a sneeze. Maelzel pushed back the android in evident alarm, but brought it forward again, and went on with the exhibition as if nothing had happened.” (The Book of the First American Chess Congress, New York, 1859, p. 442.)

Speaking of Maelzel’s confederate, Edgar Allan Poe says: “There is a man, Schlumberger, who attends Maelzel wherever he goes, but who has no ostensible occupation other than that of assisting in the packing and unpacking of the automaton. This man is about medium size, and has a remarkable stoop in the shoulders. Whether he professes to play chess or not, we are not informed. It is quite certain, however, that he is never seen during the exhibition of the chess-player, although frequently visible before and just after the exhibition. Moreover, some years ago Maelzel visited Richmond with his automata, and exhibited them, we believe, in the house now occupied by M. Bossieux as a dancing academy. Schlumberger was suddenly taken ill, and during his illness there was no exhibition of the chess-player. These facts are well known to many of our citizens. The reason assigned for the suspension of the chess-player’s performances was not the illness of Schlumberger. The inferences from all this we leave, without further comment, to the reader.”(3)

It seems strange to the psychologist that any one should imagine that an automaton could be constructed that would play a game that deals with the indeterminate, like chess or cards. This is impossible. In all such cases there must be a human agency in the background, either concealed in the mechanism itself or operating it at a distance by means of compressed air, electricity, wires, or strings. No machine could possibly be constructed to imitate the human mind when engaged in playing chess, or any other mental operation in which t he indeterminate enters and which requires knowledge and reflection. [page 23:] But the majority of people who saw the automaton did not realize this psychological fact, and pronounced it to be a pure machine.

Edgar Allan Poe, in his “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” after describing some of the celebrated automata of the eighteenth century, stressing, in particular, Jacques de Vaucanson’ s artificial duck, which simulated to perfection all the movements of that barn-yard fowl in the act of feeding, etc., remarks as follows:

“But if these machines were ingenious, what shall we think of the calculating machine of Mr. Babbage? What shall we think of an engine of wood and metal which can not only compute astronomical and navigation tables to any given extent, but render the exactitude of its operations mathematically certain through its power of correcting its possible errors? What shall we think of the machine which can not only accomplish all this, but actually print off its elaborate results, when obtained, without the slightest intervention of the intellect of man? It will, perhaps, be said in reply, that a machine such as we have described is altogether above comparison with the chess-player of Maelzel. By no means — it is altogether beneath it — that is to say, provided we assume (what should never for a moment be assumed) that the chess-player is a pure machine, and performs its operations without any immediate human agency. Arithmetical or algebraical calculations are, from their very nature, fixed and determinate. Certain data being given, certain results necessarily and inevitably follow. These results have dependence upon nothing, and are influenced by nothing but the data originally given. And the question to be solved proceeds, or should proceed, to its final determination, by a succession of un- erring steps liable to no change, and subject to no modification. This being the case, we can without difficulty conceive the possibility of so arranging a piece of mechanism, that upon starting it in accordance with the data of the question to be solved, it should con- tinue its movements regularly, progressively, and undeviatingly toward the required solution, since these movements, however complex, are never imagined to be otherwise than finite and determinate. But the case is widely different with the chess-player. With him there is no determinate progression. No one move in chess necessarily follows upon any one other. From no particular disposition of the men at one period of a game can we predicate their disposition at a different period. Let us place the first move in a game of chess, in juxtiposition with the data of an algebraical question, and their great difference will be immediately perceived. From the latter — from the data — the second step of the question, dependent [page 24:] thereupon, inevitably follows. It is modelled by the data. It must be thus and not otherwise. But from the first move in the game of chess no especial second move follows of necessity. In the algebraical question, as it proceeds toward solution, the certainty of its operations remains altogether unimpaired. The second step having been a consequence of the data, the third step is equally a consequence of the second, the fourth of the third, the fifth of the fourth, and so on, and not possibly otherwise, to the end. But in proportion to the progress made in a game of chess is the uncertainty of each ensuing move. A few moves having been made, no step is certain. Different spectators of the game would advise different moves. All is then dependent upon the variable judgment of the players. Now even granting (what should not be granted ) that the movements of the automaton chess-player were in themselves determinate, they would be necessarily interrupted and disarranged by the indeterminate will of his antagonist. There is then no analogy whatever between the operations of the chess-player and those of the calculating machine of Mr. Babbage, and if we chose to call the former a pure machine we must be prepared to admit that it is beyond all comparison the most wonderful of the inventions of mankind . Its original projector, however, Baron von Kempelen, had no scruple in declaring it to be a ‘very ordinary piece of mechanism — a bagatelle whose effects appeared so marvellous only from the boldness of the conception, and the fortunate choice of the methods adopted for promoting the illusion.’ But it is needless to dwell upon this point. It is quite certain that the operations of the automaton are regulated by mind, and by nothing else. Indeed this matter is susceptible of a mathematical demonstration, a priori. The only question then is of the manner in which human agency is brought to bear.”


MAELZEL (sometimes written, and always pronounced, Mälzl), the best known exhibitor of the chess-player, was born at Ratisbon, Bavaria, August 15, 1772. He was not only a constructor of ingenious automata, but a fine pianist, and, last but not least, a born showman. In 1809 we find him in Vienna, where he was employed as “Mechanician to the Imperial Court,” and was occupying some portion of the Palace of Schönbrunn, having in his possession von Kemplen’s chess-player, which he doubtless frequently [page 25:] exhibited before the Emperor of Austria and his family. ‘”It was then and there (and not in 1805 nor in Berlin) that Napoleon played his famous game of chess with the automaton,” says Professor Allen. Napoleon, as the reader of history knows, had seized the Palace of Schonbrunn as his headquarters during the Wagram campaign. I quote as follows from the Cornhill Magazine, London, September, 1885:

“In von Kempelen’s day the antagonist of the Turk had played upon the board in front of the figure, but Maelzel always placed a table, with another chess-board, a few paces from the automaton, with the object — as was asserted — not to intercept the view of the spectators. Maelzel, therefore, was constantly passing between the Turk and his adversary’s table to repeat each move on the board of the other party. The space occupied by the automaton was separated from the rest of the apartment by a silken cord. When Napoleon evinced an intention of passing the barrier, Maelzel checked him with ‘Sire,il est defendu de pass er outre.’ The Emperor at once acquiesced, with a good-natured ‘Eh bien!’ and took his seat at the little table on his side of the cord. It has been asserted that Napoleon, overstepping the barrier, struck his hand on the automaton’s chess-board, and exclaimed, ‘I will not contend at a distance. We fight face to face.’ Also, that he placed a large magnet on the board to see if it would have the effect of disarranging the machinery. Neither of these statements is correct. In fact, on this occasion, the conduct of the Emperor was perfectly free from the brusquerie which has been attributed to him. Napoleon, who was a poor player, quickly lost the game. He then challenged the automaton to a second encounter. In the course of the game he purposely made a false move; whereupon the Turk bowed gravely, and replaced the piece on its proper square. A few moments later the Emperor repeated his manœuvre and with a similar result. But when the same thing occurred a third time, his opponent swept the whole of the chessmen off the board. Napoleon, however, instead of being irritated by this treatment, only laughed, saying ‘C’est juste!’ He added, too, a quasi apology for the violation of the laws of the game of which he had been guilty, by alleging that it had arisen from his desire to learn what course the automaton would pursue in the event of so unexpected a contingency presenting itself. Allgaier — the inventor of the gambit named after him — is believed to have been the player who had the temerity to inflict so merited a rebuke upon the ‘Victor of a hundred battles.’” [page 26:]


AFTER having exhibited the chess-player in a number of cities of the Continent, Maelzel sold it to Napoleon’s step-son, Eugène de Beauharnais, the Viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy. But the old love of “adventurous travel with the ‘turbaned Turk’” took possession of Maelzel, and in the year 1817, when residing in Paris as a manufacturer of scientific instruments, he succeeded in buying back the automaton from its princely owner, who, after having privately exhibited it for a time for the amusement of his friends, and getting tired of it, had relegated it to a lumber room in the attics of his palace at Milan. Again Maelzel set out on his travels with the Turk. Finally, when the curiosity of Europe was exhausted, he determined to take the android to the New World — a very wise conclusion on his part, for great interest had been excited in America over the exploits of the automaton as published in the foreign press.

On December 20, 1825, Maelzel sailed from Havre, France, for the United States. He landed at New York on February 3, 1826, and gave his first exhibition of the chess-player on April 13, at the National Hotel, 112 Broadway. From New York he went to Boston, and subsequently to Philadelphia. Public interest in the exhibitions was intense, and the newspapers vied with each other in accounts of the wonderful automaton. Says Professor Allen: “Maelzel’s first exhibition season in Philadelphia extended from December 26, 1826, to March 20, 1827. The hall was open twice a day — at noon and in the evening — and full games as well as end-games were played. . . . The automaton lost one end-game — the famous Three Pawn Position-to Mr. Daniel Smith; and one full game to a lady, Mrs. Fisher. . . . Maelzel’s devotion to the fair sex was quite too profound to allow his automaton to insist upon its prerogative to take the first move; nay, Schlumberger is said to have had peremptory orders to get beaten. Maelzel afterwards remarked that the automaton had been conquered but three times — once in Paris, once in Boston, and by Mrs. Fisher, of Philadelphia.”

Maelzel’s place of exhibition in the “Quaker City” was known as Maelzel’s Hall, and it was situated on Fifth Street, below Walnut Street. But he exhibited also at the old Masonic Temple. After exhausting the interest of Philadelphia, Maelzel took the automaton to Baltimore for a season of seven months. The exhibitions were held in the historic Fountain Inn, on Light Street. Says Professor Allen:

“Maelzel’s Baltimore campaign was marked by an event of far [page 27:] greater importance than defeat in one end-game or two — I mean the discovery and publication of his secret. The affair happened in this wise: Two youths, who had in vain exhausted every means of discovering the secret of the mechanism, by such observation and inspection as the exhibition afforded, took it into their heads to approach their object in another direction. That part of Maelzel’s exhibition-room, from which the chess-player, the trumpet-playing automaton, and the dancing figures were successively brought before the curtain, was furnished with windows, which could be looked into from the roof of a shed near by. Upon this roof the boys mounted, during the first hour of the exhibition, ready to see whatever should offer itself to be seen. When the hour was over, Maelzel rolled back the chess-player behind the curtain. It was during the last week in May, and the heat in that Southern city was excessive; to Schlumberger in his box it must have been well-nigh intolerable. Intent only upon relieving his ally, Maelzel stepped to the window, threw the shutters wide open, and then, going back to the automaton, he removed the top [of the chest], as one turns round the leaf of a card table. From the mysterious crypt within there immediately emerged, in full sight of the boys, the very unpoetical figure of a tall man in his shirt-sleeves, whom there was no difficulty in recognizing as Schlumberger himself. The discovery was as alarming as it was surprising to the young fellows. To be the depositaries of a secret, which, in their minds, exceeded in importance all secrets the world had known, since the days of the Eleusinian Mysteries, was a burden under which their strength gave way, as did that of Caleb Williams, when he had become an involuntary witness to the crime of his master. One of them ‘rolled the stone off his breast’ (as the Germans would say), by telling everything to his father. The story began to spread; and in a few days — On Friday, June 1st — an article, with the attractive head, ‘The Chess-Player Discovered,’ appeared in the Baltimore Gazette.” But the cunning Maelzel denied the truth of the expose and treated it with disdain. “The world,” continues Professor Allen, “had set its heart upon believing that the secret, which had puzzled mechanicians, mathematicians, and monarchs, for more than half a century, was something quite too deep to be penetrated by a couple of boys. The National Intelligencer, of Washington, sagaciously treated the Gazette article as having emanated from Maelzel himself — ‘the tale of a discovery was but a clever device of the proprietor to keep alive the interest of the community in his exhibition.’” The public believed Maelzel and the boys were discredited.

No sooner was the above mentioned danger tided over than a [page 28:] more serious one cropped up. An enterprising inventor, by the name of Walker, built an imitation chess-player, and began exhibiting it. He offered to sell it to Maelzel and retire from the exhibition field. Maelzel agreed to buy it for a thousand dollars, but Walker refused to sell his machine for that price. In the end Walker’s exhibitions proved unsuccessful, “for,” as a magazine critic remarked, “there existed in the community a deeply rooted prejudice in favor of the historical invention of von Kempelen, which gave Maelzel advantage-ground from which no efforts of rival exhibitors could easily have driven him.”


SOME interesting observations on the chess-playing automaton are contained in the Diary of Robert Gilmor, of Baltimore, Md. Mr. Gilmor, a prominent merchant of the Monumental City, after witnessing a performance of the android, at the Fountain Inn, Light Street, May 8, 1827, came to the conclusion that Maelzel himself played the game by touching certain concealed keys, placed under the ledge of the table or desk at which the automaton sat, but he admits that he could not trace some of the moves to Maelzel’s agency. He says: “Notwithstanding the general opinion, I cannot conceive the possibility of a man being concealed within the desk at which the figure sits and plays. It would be a contemptible trick [the italics are mine], and unworthy of the ingenuity of the inventor of the machine. . . . His automaton trumpeter and rope-dancers forbid all idea of trickery in his chess-player, as they are beautiful pieces of mechanism.” But things are seldom what they seem, especially in the show business. Besides, the chess-player was not the creation of Maelzel, but that of the Baron von Kempelen, and could not well be compared with genuine automata. Mr. Gilmor subsequently changed his mind about the “turbaned Turk” and attributed its movements to an assistant hidden inside of the cabinet. He records that the aged Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, played a game with the Turk and won, but he was permitted so to do by Maelzel, who had a great admiration for the distinguished patriot of the American Revolution. At one phase of the game, however, when Schlumberger, doubtless without premeditation, pushed his opponent a bit too far, and was about to check-mate him, Maelzel hastily stopped the proceedings for a brief period, “on the pretext of adjusting the apparatus.” Says Mr. Gilmor, who was an eye-witness [page 29:] of the affair:”Taking a light, Mr. Maelzel went to examine and put to rights the interior of the Turk. He no doubt at tha.t time communicated to his assistant the faux pas which had been made.” Whereupon Schlumberger took an opposite course, thereby enabling Mr. Carroll to win the game. The old statesman, who was an indifferent chess-player, was much elated at his supposed victory over the celebrated android, which had defeated so many noted historical personages.(4)

Maelzel, in addition to the “turbaned Turk,” exhibited his own inventions, the pan-harmonicon, the trumpeter, and a superb panorama, The Burning of Moscow. After the episode at Baltimore, in which the two boys participated, he advertised that the automaton chess-player would be exhibited only to private parties on application to himself.

After an extensive tour throughout the United States, Cuba, and the West Indies, Maelzel died on July 21, 1838, on his voyage from Havana to Philadelphia, and was buried at sea. Notwithstanding the triumphs of the Turk, Maelzel died deeply in debt. When his trunks were opened by the captain of the ship only 12 Spanish doubloons and a gold medal, designed by the famous Loos, which had been presented to him by the King of Prussia, were found. “This medal,” says Professor Allen, “after passing through several hands, was finally sold to the United States Mint, and, instead of being added to the very rich collection of coins and medals there deposited, was barbarously melted down.” Maelzel was a lovable and charitable man, and his adventures with the “turbaned Turk” form an interesting chapter in the history of chess. He was a mechanician of great skill. His’ automaton trumpeter, constructed in 1804, played Austrian and French cavalry marches, also marches and allegros by Weigl, Dussek, and Pleyel. His pan-harmonic on, built in 1805, was an automatic orchestra consisting of violins, violoncellos, flutes, clarinets, trumpets, drums, cymbals, and a triangle. Schlumberger died in Havana of yellow fever, a short time before Maelzel’s sad end. The chess-player, with other of Maelzel’s effects, was sold at public auction in Philadelphia , and was bought by John F. Ohl, a merchant of the “Quaker City,” who subsequently disposed of it to Dr. J.K. Mitchell(5) and a coterie of chess lovers for four hundred [page 30:] dollars. Doctor Mitchell gave one public exhibition of the automaton for the benefit of a girls’ school of Philadelphia; after that it was privately shown, and finally deposited in the Chinese Museum, situated on the northeast corner of Ninth and Sansom streets. There it rested from its labors for fourteen years, a superannuated, broken-down pensioner, until July 5, 1854, when it was burned to ashes in the great fire which destroyed the museum. Better such an end than rotting to pieces in the cellar of some old warehouse. Says the Cornhill Magazine, London, September, 1885: “So entirely had all interest in it died out that not only was no effort made to save it, but its fate attracted no notice whatsoever. In fact, the Philadelphia press, whilst giving full details in other respects of the loss of property caused by the conflagration, did not devote even one brief paragraph to chronicle the destruction of a piece of mechanism which for originality of conception and ingenuity of execution has never been excelled.”

It is interesting to record that Robert Heller, the famous prestidigitator, played for three months in the lecture-room of the Chinese Museum in 1853, exhibiting his feats of magic and his automata to crowded houses. I have often wondered if the English escamoteur knew that the chess-player was in the same building with him, and rendered it the homage that was its due. Possibly not! But a fascinating story a la “Alice in Wonderland” might be woven about the subject; for example, a ceremonial visit paid by Heller’s “Harlequin-in-the-Box” and other pseudo-automata to the “Turbaned Turk,” at the witching hour of midnight when ghosts are supposed to stalk abroad and witches to hold high revels.

It is more than probable that Heller had his paraphernalia stored in the Chinese Museum when he went on tour for a few weeks with the Germania Musical Society, as a concert pianist, in 1854, and lost his apparatus in the fire that consumed the museum. If so, the chess-player departed this life in good company.

The exhibitions of the chess-player in the United States did much to stimulate interest in the royal game. The first chess club ever founded in Philadelphia owed its existence to the excitement caused by the performances of the Turk. [page 31:]


ROBERT-HOUDIN, the celebrated French conjurer, in his Confidences et Révélations, 1868, tells a fascinating story about the chess-player; but, alas, its accuracy has been seriously challenged. Briefly related it is as follows:

In 1776 a revolt broke out in a half -Russian, half-Polish regiment stationed at Riga, the capital of Livonia, Russia. At the head of the rebels was an officer named Worousky. The revolutionists were defeated in a pitched battle and put to flight by the Russians. Worousky had both thighs shattered by a cannon ball and fell on the battlefield. However, he escaped from the general massacre of his comrades by casting himself into a ditch behind a hedge, not far from the residence of a doctor named Osloff. At nightfall he dragged himself with great difficulty to the house, and was taken in by the benevolent physician, who promised to conceal him. Doctor Osloff eventually had to amputate both of Worousky’s legs, close to the body. The operation was successful. At this time, Baron von Kempelen came to Russia, and paid Doctor Osloff a visit. He also took compassion upon the crippled Polish officer. It seems that Worousky was a master of the game of chess, and repeatedly defeated Osloff and von Kempelen. Von Kempelen then conceived the idea of the automaton chess-player, as a means of assisting Worousky to escape from Russia; and he immediately set about building it. It was completed in three months. In order to avert suspicion Osloff and von Kempelen determined to play at several of the smaller towns and cities before reaching the frontier. The first performance was given at Toula, where Worousky won every game he played and the papers were full of praises of the marvelous automaton.

Worousky was concealed from sight, while traveling, in the big chest which held the chess-player. Air holes were made in the sides of the chest to enable him to breathe. The little company had arrived without adventure at Vitebsk, on the road to the Prussian frontier, when a letter came summoning them to the Imperial palace at St. Petersburg. The Empress Catherine II, having heard of the android’s wonderful skill, desired to play a game with it. Von Kempelen dared not refuse this demand. Worousky, who had a price set on his head, was the coolest of the three, and seemed delighted at the idea of playing with the Empress. After a journey of fifteen days they reached St. Petersburg.

Catherine the Great played a number of games with the automaton, and was very much piqued when she was beaten. On one [page 32:] occasion she endeavored to cheat the android by making a false move, but the figure indignantly swept the chessmen from the board, to the secret anmsement of the Russian courtiers who were present. Von Kempelen was much alarmed, fearing the discovery of his concealed confederate; but Catherine passed off the incident with a laugh. She offered to buy the machine, but von Kempelen declared that his own presence was absolutely necessary for its proper working and that it was quite impossible for him to sell it. After some further discussion, the Empress allowed him to proceed on his journey with his precious Turk, and so Worousky was enabled to escape at last to Prussia.

The automaton, as I have already noted, always used its left hand in playing chess — “a defect falsely attributed to the carelessness of the inventor.” But Robert-Houdin says it was so constructed because Worousky was left -handed.

Robert-Houdin asserts that M. Hessler, nephew of Doctor Osloff, communicated to him the real history of the chess-player and its exploits in Russia. He also states that M. Hessler presented him with a copy of the original play-bill used by von Kempelen when he exhibited the android at Toula. The famous French fantaisiste says that in the year 1844, he saw the chess-player at the house of a mechanician named Cronier, who lived at Belleville, France, but tbat he did not witness the automaton in operation. He likewise states that three months after the Russian adventure, the chess- player was exhibited in England by M. Anthon, to whom von Kempelen had sold it. “I know not,” he writes, “if Worousky was still attached to it, but I fancy so, owing to the immense success the chess-player met with. M. Anthon visited the whole of Europe, always meeting with the same success; but, at his death, the celebrated automaton was purchased by Maelzel, who embarked with it for New York. It was then, probably, that Worousky took leave of his hospitable Turk; for the automaton was not nearly so successful in America. After exhibiting his mechanical trumpeter and chess-player for some time, Maelzel set out again for France, but died on the voyage of an attack of indigestion. His heirs sold his apparatus, and thus Cronier obtained his precious relic.”

Commenting on the above, Dr. R. Shelton Mackenzie, editor of the American edition of Robert-Houdin’s Memoirs (Philadelphia, 1859), says, in his introduction to the foregoing work: “It was in 1783 that the automaton first visited Paris, where it played at the Café de la Régence; it was not taken to London until 1784; and again in 1819. lt was brought to America in 1825, by Mr. Maelzel, and visited our principal cities; its chief resting-place being Philadelphia. [page 33:] Mr. Maelzel’s death was in 1838, on the voyage from Cuba to the United States, and not, as Robert-Houdin says, on his return to France; and the automaton, so far from being taken back to France, was sold by auction here, finally purchased by the late Dr. J. K. Mitchell, of Philadelphia, reconstructed by him, and subsequently deposited in the Chinese Museum (formerly Peale’s), where it was consumed in the great fire which destroyed the National Theatre (now the site of the Continental Hotel, corner of Ninth and Chestnut Streets), and extending to the Chinese Museum, burnt it down on July 5, 1854.”

I think the fact may be granted that Robert-Houdin saw an automaton chess-player at the house of M. Cronier, at Belleville, France, but it could not possibly have been von Kempelen’s celebrated android; it must have been an imitation of the latter.

To sum up: There is no historical evidence whatsoever that the chess-player was ever taken to Russia, and therefore the entertaining episode about its playing a game with Catherine II must be dismissed as a myth, Doctor Osloff’s nephew notwithstanding. The Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th edition, Vol. VI, however, accepts Robert-Houdin’s account of the automaton as a fact, despite all the evidence against it. It also states that it was owned for a short time by Napoleon I; which, as we have seen, is untrue.

In 1868 a melodrama called La Czarine, founded on Robert- Houdin’s story of von Kempelen’s masterpiece, was produced at the Ambigu Theatre, Paris. For this play the French conjurer constructed a so-called automaton chess-player, and devised also a spectacular optical illusion based on Professor Pepper’s ghost show. The scene was laid in Russia in the eighteenth century, and the Empress Catherine II and Baron von Kempelen were the leading characters in the drama.

In 1927 a moving-picture play by Henri Dupuy-Mazuel and Raymond Bernard, having to do with von Kempelen and his chess- player, was produced in Paris. The rôle of the Baron was taken by a celebrated character actor, M. Dullin.

A number of imitations of von Kempelen’s chef-d’œuvre appeared in the latter part of the nineteenth century, such as “Ajeeb,” “Hajeb,” “Mephisto,” “As-Rah,” etc.; but none ever equalled the original automaton. “Ajeeb” was exhibited for a number of years at the old Eden Musée, New York City, where I had the pleasure of playing a game with it.

In the year 1882 the police of Bordeaux, France, prohibited the exhibition or “As-Rah,” when it was one of the attractions of an [page 34:] industrial exposition held in that city, on the ground that “the manikin — a figure of a Turk seated cross-legged on the top of a small cabinet — was not set in motion by mechanical devices, but by a youth of eighteen years, who was enclosed within a cavity behind the clock work, and whose health was gravely compromised by this daily torture.”



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 13:]

1.  This monograph was originally delivered as a lecture before the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Md., in 1937. But it has been supplemented with much new material by the author.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 14:]

2.  Several variants in the spelling of the inventor’s name are found in the old records, such as Kempelen, Kemple, Kempl, but his autograph is Kempel, as will be seen in his letter to Benjamin Franklin, facing page 14. It is to be regretted that no portrait of the Baron exists. In the year 1937, at my request, Herr Ottokar Fischer, author of many interesting works on natural magic, searched in vain for a picture of von Kempelen in the archives of the famous Municipal Library of Vienna, also in the large collection of portraits in the Austrian National Library.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 22:]

3.  Poe evidently witnessed an exhibition of the chess-player in 1835, or 1836, in Richmond, Va. Maelzel paid his first visit to the Capital of Virginia in 1834.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 29:]

4.  Diary of Robert Gilmor (1827). Reprinted in the Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 17, September and December, 1922.

Robert Gilmor was not only a leading merchant of Baltimore, Md., but a patron of arts and letters. He died November 30, 1848, about a year before the death of Poe. He was in his seventy-fifth year.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 30, although the text that references the footnote is on page 29:]

5.  Dr. John Kearsley Mitchell, the last owner and exhibitor of the chess-playing automaton, was born May 12, 1793, in Shepherdstown, Jefferson County, Va. (now in West Virginia); and died in Philadelphia, April 4, 1858. In 1822 he began the practice of his profession in Philadelphia, where he held the chair of theory and practice of medicine in the Jefferson Medical College, of that city. One of his sons, Silas Weir Mitchell, also a distinguished physician, wrote the famous historical novel of the Revolution, Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker.







[S:0 - EPBKCPA, 1939] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Edgar Allan Poe and Baron von Kempelen's Chess-Playing Automaton (H. R. Evans) (Main text)