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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, 02:46:58 am »

Mälzel and the machine

Following the death of Kempelen, the Turk remained un-exhibited until some time before 1808 when Kempelen's son decided to sell it to Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, a Bavarian musician with an interest in various machines and devices. Mälzel, whose successes included patenting a form of metronome, had tried to purchase the Turk once before, prior to Kempelen's death. The original attempt had failed, owing to Kempelen's asking price of 20,000 francs; Kempelen's son sold the machine to Mälzel for half this sum.[40]

Upon acquiring the Turk, Mälzel had to learn its secrets and make some repairs to get it back in working order. His stated goal was to make explaining the Turk a greater challenge. While the completion of this goal took ten years, the Turk still made appearances, most notably with Napoleon Bonaparte.[41]

In 1809, Napoleon I of France arrived at Schönbrunn Palace to play the Turk. According to an eyewitness report, Mälzel took responsibility for the construction of the machine while preparing the game, and the Turk (Johann Baptist Allgaier) saluted Napoleon prior to the start of the match. The details of the match have been published over the years in numerous accounts, many of them contradictory.[42] According to Bradley Ewart, it is believed that the Turk sat at its cabinet, and Napoleon sat at a separate chess table. Napoleon's table was in a roped-off area and he was not allowed to cross into the Turk's area, with Mälzel crossing back and forth to make each player's move and allowing a clear view for the spectators. In a surprise move, Napoleon took the first turn instead of allowing the Turk to make the first move, as was usual; but Mälzel allowed the game to continue. Shortly thereafter, Napoleon attempted an illegal move. Upon noticing the move, the Turk returned the piece to its original spot and continued the game. Napoleon attempted the illegal move a second time, and the Turk responded by removing the piece from the board entirely and taking its turn. Napoleon then attempted the move a third time, the Turk responding with a sweep of its arm, knocking all the pieces off the board. Napoleon was reportedly amused, and then played a real game with the machine, completing nineteen moves before tipping over his king in surrender.[43] Alternate versions of the story include Napoleon being unhappy about losing to the machine, playing the machine at a later time, playing one match with a magnet on the board, and playing a match with a shawl around the head and body of the Turk in an attempt to obscure its vision.[44]

In 1811, Mälzel brought the Turk to Milan for a performance with Eugène de Beauharnais, the Prince of Venice and Viceroy of Italy. Beauharnais enjoyed the machine so much that he offered to purchase it from Mälzel. After some serious bargaining, Beauharnais acquired the Turk for 30,000 francs – three times what Mälzel had paid – and kept it for four years. In 1815, Mälzel returned to Beauharnais and asked to buy the Turk back, eventually working out an agreement where Mälzel would pay Beauharnais 30,000 francs from profits of future exhibitions in Europe whilst not taking the Turk off the continent.[45]
An advertisement for Mälzel's appearance with the Turk in London[46]

Following the repurchase, Mälzel brought the Turk back to Paris where he made acquaintances of many of the leading chess players at Café de la Régence. Mälzel stayed in France with the machine until 1818, when he moved to London and held a number of performances with the Turk and many of his other machines. In London, Mälzel and his act received a large amount of press, and he continued improving the machine,[47] ultimately installing a voice box so the machine could say "Échec!" when placing a player in check.[48]

In 1819, Mälzel took the Turk on a tour of the United Kingdom. There were several new developments in the act, such as allowing the opponent the first move and eliminating the king's bishop's pawn from the Turk's pieces. This pawn handicap created further interest in the Turk, and spawned a book by W. J. Hunneman chronicling the matches played with this handicap.[49] Despite the handicap, the Turk (operated by Mouret at the time[50]) ended up with forty-five victories, three losses, and two stalemates.[51]
[edit] Mälzel in America

Although the appearances of the Turk were profitable for Mälzel, he fell into debt and was eventually sued by Beauharnais for his failure to honour their agreement. Mälzel was unable to sell the Turk to pay off the debts, instead taking it and his other machines to the United States. In 1826, he opened an exhibition in New York City that slowly grew in popularity, giving rise to many newspaper stories and anonymous threats of exposure of the secret. Mälzel's problem was finding a proper director for the machine,[52] having trained an unknown woman in France before coming to the United States. He ended up recalling a former director, William Schlumberger, from Europe to come to America and work for him again once Mälzel was able to provide the money for Schlumberger's transport.[14] Before his arrival, Mälzel was forced to limit the exhibition of the machine to endgames owing to the lack of skill of his director, much to the chagrin of the public.[53]

Upon Schlumberger's arrival, the Turk debuted in Boston, Mälzel spinning a story that the New York chess players could not handle full games and that the Boston players were much better opponents.[54] This was a success for many weeks, and the tour moved to Philadelphia for three months. Following Philadelphia, the Turk moved to Baltimore, where it played for a number of months, including losing a match against Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The exhibition in Baltimore brought news that two brothers had constructed their own machine, the Walker Chess-player. Mälzel viewed the competing machine and attempted to buy it, but the offer was declined and the duplicate machine toured for a number of years, never receiving the fame that Mälzel's machine did and eventually falling into obscurity.[55]
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