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The Mechanical Turk Automaton

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Author Topic: The Mechanical Turk Automaton  (Read 542 times)
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« on: December 30, 2010, 02:46:20 am »

The tour of Europe

Following word of its debut, interest in the machine grew across Europe. Kempelen, however, was more interested in his other projects and avoided exhibiting the Turk, often lying about the machine's repair status to prospective challengers. Von Windisch wrote at one point that Kempelen "refused the entreaties of his friends, and a crowd of curious persons from all countries, the satisfaction of seeing this far-famed machine."[27] In the decade following its debut at Schönbrunn Palace the Turk only played one opponent, Sir Robert Murray Keith, a Scottish noble, and Kempelen went as far as dismantling the Turk entirely following the match.[28] Kempelen was quoted as referring to the invention as a "mere bagatelle," as he was not pleased with its popularity and would rather continue work on steam engines and machines that replicated human speech.

In 1781, Kempelen was ordered by Emperor Joseph II to reconstruct the Turk and deliver it to Vienna for a state visit from Grand Duke Paul of Russia and his wife. The appearance was so successful that Grand Duke Paul suggested a tour of Europe for the Turk, a request to which Kempelen reluctantly agreed.[29]
François-André Danican Philidor won a match against the Turk in Paris in 1793.

The Turk began its European tour in 1783, beginning with an appearance in France in April. A stop at Versailles preceded an exhibition in Paris, where the Turk lost a match to Charles Godefroy de La Tour d'Auvergne, the Duc de Bouillon. Upon arrival in Paris in May 1783 it was displayed to the public and played a variety of opponents, including a lawyer named Mr. Bernard who was a second rank in chess ability.[30] Following the sessions at Versailles, demands increased for a match with François-André Danican Philidor, who was considered the best chess player of his time.[31] Moving to the Café de la Régence, the machine played many of the most skilled players, often losing (e.g. against Bernard and Verdoni)[32], until securing a match with Philidor at the Académie des Sciences. While Philidor won his match with the Turk, Philidor's son noted that his father called it "his most fatiguing game of chess ever!"[33] The Turk's final game in Paris was against Benjamin Franklin, who was serving as ambassador to France from the United States. Franklin reportedly enjoyed the game with the Turk and was interested in the machine for the rest of his life, keeping a copy of Philip Thicknesse's book The Speaking Figure and the Automaton Chess Player, Exposed and Detected in his personal library.[34]

Following his tour of Paris, Kempelen moved the Turk to London, where it was exhibited daily for five shillings. Thicknesse, known in his time as a skeptic, sought out the Turk in an attempt to expose the inner workings of the machine.[35] While he respected Kempelen as "a very ingenious man",[3] he asserted that the Turk was an elaborate hoax with a small child inside the machine, describing the machine as "a complicated piece of clockwork ... which is nothing more, than one, of many other ingenious devices, to misguide and delude the observers."[36]

After a year in London, Kempelen and the Turk travelled to Leipzig, stopping in various European cities along the way. From Leipzig, it went to Dresden, where Joseph Friedrich Freiherr von Racknitz viewed the Turk and published his findings in Ueber den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen, nebst einer Abbildung und Beschreibung seiner Sprachmachine, along with illustrations showing his beliefs about how the machine operated. It then moved to Amsterdam, after which Kempelen is said to have accepted an invitation to the Sanssouci palace in Potsdam of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. The story goes that Frederick enjoyed the Turk so much that he paid a large sum of money to Kempelen in exchange for the Turk's secrets. Frederick never gave the secret away, but was reportedly disappointed to learn how the machine worked.[37] (This story is almost certainly apocryphal; there is no evidence of the Turk's encounter with Frederick, the first mention of which comes in the early 19th century, by which time the Turk was also incorrectly said to have played against George III of England.[38]) It seems most likely that the machine stayed dormant at Schönbrunn Palace for over two decades, although Kempelen attempted unsuccessfully to sell it in his final years. Kempelen died at age 70 on 26 March 1804.[39]
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