The Automaton Chess Player


The Turk, also known as the Mechanical Turk or Automaton Chess Player (German: Schachtürke, “chess Turk”‘ Hungarian: A Török), was a fake chess-playing machine constructed in the late 18th century. From 1770 until its destruction by fire in 1854, it was exhibited by various owners as an automaton, though it was exposed in the early 1820s as an elaborate hoax.[1]  Constructed and unveiled in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734–1804) to impress the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, the mechanism appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent, as well as perform the knight’s tour, a puzzle that requires the player to move a knight to occupy every square of a chessboard exactly once.

The Turk was in fact a mechanical illusion that allowed a human chess master hiding inside to operate the machine. With a skilled operator, the Turk won most of the games played during its demonstrations around Europe and the Americas for nearly 84 years, playing and defeating many challengers including statesmen such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. Although many had suspected the hidden human operator, the hoax was revealed only in the 1820s by the Londoner Robert Willis.[2] The operator(s) within the mechanism during Kempelen’s original tour remains a mystery. When the device was later purchased in 1804 and exhibited by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, the chess masters who secretly operated it included Johann Allgaier, Boncourt, Aaron Alexandre, William Lewis, Jacques Mouret, and William Schlumberger.


Von Kempelen was inspired to build The Turk following his attendance at the court of Maria Theresa of Austria at Schönbrunn Palace, where François Pelletier was performing an illusion act. An exchange following the performance resulted in Kempelen promising to return to the Palace with an invention that would top the illusions.[3]
A copper engraving of the Turk, showing the open cabinets and working parts. Note the ruler to the bottom right of the image, which makes it easier to determine the automaton’s dimensions. Kempelen was a skilled engraver and may have drawn this image himself.

The result of the challenge was the Automaton Chess-player,[4][5] known in modern times as The Turk. The machine consisted of a life-sized model of a human head and torso, with a black beard and grey eyes,[6] and dressed in Turkish robes and a turban – “the traditional costume”, according to journalist and author Tom Standage, “of an oriental sorcerer.” Its left arm held a long Turkish smoking pipe while at rest, while its right lay on the top of a large cabinet[7] that measured about three-and-a-half feet (110 cm[8]) long, two feet (60 cm) wide, and two-and-a-half feet (75 cm) high. Placed on the top of the cabinet was a chessboard, which measured eighteen inches square. The front of the cabinet consisted of three doors, an opening, and a drawer, which could be opened to reveal a red and white ivory chess set.[9]
An illustration of the workings of the model. The various parts were directed by a human via interior levers and machinery. This is a distorted measurement based on Racknitz’s calculations, showing an impossible design in relation to the actual dimensions of the machine.[10]

The interior of the machine was very complicated and designed to mislead those who observed it.[3] When opened on the left, the front doors of the cabinet exposed a number of gears and cogs similar to clockwork. The section was designed so that if the back doors of the cabinet were open at the same time one could see through the machine. The other side of the cabinet did not house machinery; instead it contained a red cushion and some removable parts, as well as brass structures. This area was also designed to provide a clear line of vision through the machine. Underneath the robes of the Turkish model, two other doors were hidden. These also exposed clockwork machinery and provided a similarly unobstructed view through the machine. The design allowed the presenter of the machine to open every available door to the public, to maintain the illusion.[11]

Neither the clockwork visible to the left side of the machine nor the drawer that housed the chess set extended fully to the rear of the cabinet; they instead went only one third of the way. A sliding seat was also installed, allowing the director inside to slide from place to place and thus evade observation as the presenter opened various doors. The sliding of the seat caused dummy machinery to slide into its place to further conceal the person inside the cabinet.[12]

The chessboard on the top of the cabinet was thin enough to allow for a magnetic linkage. Each piece in the chess set had a small, strong magnet attached to its base, and when they were placed on the board the pieces would attract a magnet attached to a string under their specific places on the board. This allowed the director inside the machine to see which pieces moved where on the chess board.[13] The bottom of the chessboard had corresponding numbers, 1–64, allowing the director to see which places on the board were affected by a player’s move.[14] The internal magnets were positioned in a way that outside magnetic forces did not influence them, and Kempelen would often allow a large magnet to sit at the side of the board in an attempt to show that the machine was not influenced by magnetism.[15]

As a further means of misdirection, the Turk came with a small wooden coffin-like box that the presenter would place on the top of the cabinet.[3] While Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, a later owner of the machine, did not use the box,[16] Kempelen often peered into the box during play, suggesting that the box controlled some aspect of the machine.[3] The box was believed by some to have supernatural power, with Karl Gottlieb von Windisch writing in his 1784 book Inanimate Reason that “[o]ne old lady, in particular, who had not forgotten the tales she had been told in her youth … went and hid herself in a window seat, as distant as she could from the evil spirit, which she firmly believed possessed the machine.”[5]
A cross-section of the Turk from Racknitz, showing how he thought the director sat inside as he played his opponent. Racknitz was wrong both about the position of the director and the dimensions of the automaton.[10]

The interior also contained a pegboard chess board connected to a pantograph-style series of levers that controlled the model’s left arm. The metal pointer on the pantograph moved over the interior chessboard, and would simultaneously move the arm of the Turk over the chessboard on the cabinet. The range of motion allowed the director to move the Turk’s arm up and down, and turning the lever would open and close the Turk’s hand, allowing it to grasp the pieces on the board. All of this was made visible to the director by using a simple candle, which had a ventilation system through the model.[17] Other parts of the machinery allowed for a clockwork-type sound to be played when the Turk made a move, further adding to the machinery illusion, and for the Turk to make various facial expressions.[18] A voice box was added following the Turk’s acquisition by Mälzel, allowing the machine to say “Échec!” (French for “check”) during matches.[4]

An operator inside the machine also had tools to assist in communicating with the presenter outside. Two brass discs equipped with numbers were positioned opposite each other on the inside and outside of the cabinet. A rod could rotate the discs to the desired number, which acted as a code between the two.[19]


The Turk made its debut in 1770 at Schönbrunn Palace, about six months after Pelletier’s act. Kempelen addressed the court, presenting what he had built, and began the demonstration of the machine and its parts. With every showing of the Turk, Kempelen began by opening the doors and drawers of the cabinet, allowing members of the audience to inspect the machine. Following this display, Kempelen would announce that the machine was ready for a challenger.[20]

Kempelen would inform the player that the Turk would use the white pieces and have the first move. Between moves the Turk kept its left arm on the cushion. The Turk could nod twice if it threatened its opponent’s queen, and three times upon placing the king in check. If an opponent made an illegal move, the Turk would shake its head, move the piece back and make its own move, thus forcing a forfeit of its opponent’s move.[21] Louis Dutens, a traveller who observed a showing of the Turk, attempted to trick the machine “by giving the Queen the move of a Knight, but my mechanic opponent was not to be so imposed upon; he took up my Queen and replaced her in the square from which I had moved her.”[22] Kempelen made it a point to traverse the room during the match, and invited observers to bring magnets, irons, and lodestones to the cabinet to test whether the machine was run by a form of magnetism or weights. The first person to play the Turk was Count Ludwig von Cobenzl, an Austrian courtier at the palace. Along with other challengers that day, he was quickly defeated, with observers of the match stating that the machine played aggressively, and typically beat its opponents within thirty minutes.[23]
The knight’s tour, as solved by the Turk. The closed loop that is formed allows the tour to be completed from any starting point on the board.[24]

Another part of the machine’s exhibition was the completion of the knight’s tour, a famed chess puzzle. The puzzle requires the player to move a knight around a chessboard, touching each square once along the way. While most experienced chess players of the time still struggled with the puzzle, the Turk was capable of completing the tour without any difficulty from any starting point via a pegboard used by the director with a mapping of the puzzle laid out

The Turk also had the ability to converse with spectators using a letter board. The director, whose identity during the period when Kempelen presented the machine at Schönbrunn Palace is unknown,[25] was able to do this in English, French, and German. Carl Friedrich Hindenburg, a university mathematician, kept a record of the conversations during the Turk’s time in Leipzig and published it in 1789 as Über den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen und dessen Nachbildung (or On the Chessplayer of Mr. von Kempelen And Its Replica). Topics of questions put to and answered by the Turk included its age, marital status, and its secret workings.[26]

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 Über 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]
Mälzel and the machine

Following the death of Kempelen, the Turk remained un-exhibited until some time before 1804 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 in Munich and asked to buy the Turk back. Two versions of how much he had to pay exist, eventually working out an agreement.[45] One version appeared in the France Letter Palamede. [Note 1] The complete story does not make a lot of sense since Mälzel visited Paris again, and he also could import his “Conflagration of Moscow”.[Note 2]
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]

Mälzel in America

The appearances of the Turk were profitable for Mälzel, and he continued by 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 Elsass in Europe to come to America and work for him again once Mälzel was able to provide the money for Schlumberger’s transport.

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.[53] 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.[54]

Mälzel continued with exhibitions around the United States until 1828, when he took some time off and visited Europe, returning in 1829. Throughout the 1830s, he continued to tour the United States, exhibiting the machine as far west as the Mississippi River and visiting Canada. In Richmond, Virginia, the Turk was observed by Edgar Allan Poe, who was writing for the Southern Literary Messenger. Poe’s essay “Maelzel’s Chess Player” was published in April 1836 and is the most famous essay on the Turk, even though many of Poe’s hypotheses were incorrect (such as that a chess-playing machine must always win).[55]

Mälzel eventually took the Turk on his second tour to Havana, Cuba. In Cuba, Schlumberger died of yellow fever, leaving Mälzel without a director for his machine. Dejected, Mälzel died at sea in 1838 at age 66 during his return trip, leaving his machinery with the ship captain.[56][57]

Final years and beyond

Upon the return of the ship on which Mälzel died, his various machines, including the Turk, fell into the hands of a friend of Mälzel’s, the businessman John Ohl. He attempted to auction off the Turk, but owing to low bidding ultimately bought it himself for $400.[58] Only when Dr. John Kearsley Mitchell from Philadelphia, Edgar Allan Poe’s personal physician and an admirer of the Turk, approached Ohl did the Turk change hands again.[3] Mitchell formed a restoration club and went about the business of repairing the Turk for public appearances, completing the restoration in 1840.[59]

As interest in the Turk outgrew its location, Mitchell and his club chose to donate the machine to the Chinese Museum of Charles Willson Peale. While the Turk still occasionally gave performances, it was eventually relegated to the corners of the museum and forgotten about until 5 July 1854, when a fire that started at the National Theater in Philadelphia reached the Museum and destroyed the Turk.[60] Mitchell believed he had heard “through the struggling flames … the last words of our departed friend, the sternly whispered, oft repeated syllables, ‘echec! echec!!'”[61]

John Gaughan’s reconstructed Turk

John Gaughan, an American manufacturer of equipment for magicians based in Los Angeles, spent $US120,000 building his own version of Kempelen’s machine over a five-year period from 1984.[62] The machine uses the original chessboard, which was stored separately from the original Turk and was not destroyed in the fire. The first public display of Gaughan’s Turk was in November 1989 at a history of magic conference. The machine was presented much as Kempelen presented the original, except that the opponent was replaced by a computer running a chess program.[63]

Revealing the secrets

While many books and articles were written during the Turk’s life about how it worked, most were inaccurate, drawing incorrect inferences from external observation. In 1827 the Journal of the Franklin Institute did bring one of this often reprinted articles.[64]

It was not until Dr. Silas Mitchell’s series of articles for The Chess Monthly that the secret was fully revealed. Mitchell, son of the final private owner of the Turk, John Kearsley Mitchell,[65] wrote that “no secret was ever kept as the Turk’s has been. Guessed at, in part, many times, no one of the several explanations … ever solved this amusing puzzle.” As the Turk was lost to fire at the time of this publication, Silas Mitchell felt that there were “no longer any reasons for concealing from the amateurs of chess, the solution to this ancient enigma.”[61]

The most important biographical history about the Chess-player and Mälzel was presented in Containing the Proceedings of that celebrated Assemblage, held in New York, in the Year 1857, published by Daniel Willard Fiske.[66]

In 1859, a letter published in the Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch by William F. Kummer, who worked as a director under John Mitchell, revealed another piece of the secret: a candle inside the cabinet. A series of tubes led from the lamp to the turban of the Turk for ventilation. The smoke rising from the turban would be disguised by the smoke coming from the other candelabra in the area where the game was played.[67]

Later in 1859, an uncredited article appeared in Littell’s Living Age that purported to be the story of the Turk from French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. This was rife with errors ranging from dates of events to a story of a Polish officer whose legs were amputated, but ended up being rescued by Kempelen and smuggled back to Russia inside the machine.[68]

A new article about the Turk did not turn up until 1899, when The American Chess Magazine published an account of the Turk’s match with Napoleon Bonaparte. The story was basically a review of previous accounts, and a substantive published account would not appear until 1947, when Chess Review published articles by Kenneth Harkness and Jack Straley Battell that amounted to a comprehensive history and description of the Turk, complete with new diagrams that synthesized information from previous publications. Another article written in 1960 for American Heritage by Ernest Wittenberg provided new diagrams describing how the director sat inside the cabinet.[69]

In Henry A. Davidson’s 1945 publication A Short History of Chess, significant weight is given to Poe’s essay which erroneously suggested that the player sat inside the Turk figure, rather than on a moving seat inside the cabinet. A similar error would occur in Alex G. Bell’s 1978 book, The Machine Plays Chess, which falsely asserted that “the operator was a trained boy (or very small adult) who followed the directions of the chess player who was hidden elsewhere on stage or in the theater…”[70]

More books were published about the Turk toward the end of the 20th century. Along with Bell’s book, Charles Michael Carroll’s The Great Chess Automaton (1975) focused more on the studies of the Turk. Bradley Ewart’s Chess: Man vs. Machine (1980) discussed the Turk as well as other purported chess-playing automatons.[71]

It was not until the creation of Deep Blue, IBM’s attempt at a computer that could challenge the world’s best players, that interest increased again, and two more books were published: Gerald M. Levitt’s The Turk, Chess Automaton (2000), and Tom Standage’s The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine, published in 2002.[72] The Turk was used as a personification of Deep Blue in the 2003 documentary Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine.[73]

Popular culture
An advertisement for an exhibition of Ajeeb, including an illustration of its appearance. Ajeeb was an imitation of the Turk.

Owing to the Turk’s popularity and mystery, its construction inspired a number of inventions and imitations,[3] including Ajeeb, or “The Egyptian”, an American imitation built by Charles Hopper that President Grover Cleveland played in 1885, and Mephisto, the self-described “most famous” machine, of which little is known.[74]

The first imitation was made while Mälzel was in Baltimore. Created by the Brothers Walker, the “American Chess Player” made its debut in May 1827 in New York. Upon seeing the machine, Mälzel attempted to buy the Walker Brothers’ machine for $1000 and even offered them jobs, but they declined. The Walkers did not have the same success as Mälzel, and had to give up some time later.[75]

El Ajedrecista was built in 1912 by Leonardo Torres y Quevedo as a chess-playing automaton and made its public debut during the Paris World Fair of 1914. Capable of playing rook and king versus king endgames using electromagnets, it was the first true chess-playing automaton, and a precursor of sorts to Deep Blue.[76]
Automated machines

The Turk was visited in London by Rev. Edmund Cartwright in 1784. He was so intrigued by the Turk that he would later question whether “it is more difficult to construct a machine that shall weave than one which shall make all the variety of moves required in that complicated game.” Cartwright would patent the prototype for a power loom within the year.[77] Sir Charles Wheatstone, an inventor, saw a later appearance of the Turk while it was owned by Mälzel. He also saw some of Mälzel’s speaking machines, and Mälzel later presented a demonstration of speaking machines to a researcher and his teenage son. Alexander Graham Bell obtained a copy of a book by Kempelen on speaking machines after being inspired by seeing a similar machine built by Wheatstone; Bell went on to file the first successful patent for the telephone.[3]

A play, The Automaton Chess Player, was presented in New York City in 1845. The advertising, as well as an article that appeared in The Illustrated London News, claimed that the play featured Kempelen’s Turk, but it was in fact a copy of the Turk created by J. Walker, who had earlier presented the Walker Chess-player.[78]
Film and television

Raymond Bernard’s silent feature film Le joueur d’échecs (The Chess Player, France 1927) weaves elements from the real story of the Turk into an adventure tale set in the aftermath of the first of the Partitions of Poland in 1772. The film’s “Baron von Kempelen” is a nobleman from Vilnius who builds automata as a hobby. He helps a dashing young Polish nationalist on the run from the occupying Russians, who also happens to be an expert chess player, by hiding him inside a chess playing automaton called the Turk, closely based on the real Kempelen’s model. Just as they are about to escape over the border, the Baron is summoned to Saint Petersburg to present the Turk to the empress Catherine II. In an echo of the Napoleon incident, Catherine attempts to cheat the Turk, who wipes all the pieces from the board in response.[79]

Poe’s article Maelzel’s Chess Player was the inspiration for El jugador de ajedrez (1981), directed by Juan Luis Buñuel.[citation needed]

The Turk was the inspiration for the clockwork robots featured in the 2006 Doctor Who episode The Girl in the Fireplace, written by Steven Moffatt.[80] The spin-off audio The Silver Turk sees the Eighth Doctor dealing with a primitive Cyberman in 1873 that has been partially repaired to allow it to function as an automaton apparently similar to the original Turk, known as the Silver Turk.

An advanced hardware- and software-based AI chess-playing platform bearing the contraption’s name is a key plot element in the 2008 television drama Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, first referenced in the third episode.

The Turk has also inspired works of literary fiction. In 1849, just several years before the Turk was destroyed, Edgar Allan Poe published a tale “Von Kempelen and His Discovery”.[81] Ambrose Bierce’s short story “Moxon’s Master”, published in 1909, is a morbid tale about a chess-playing automaton that resembles the Turk. In 1938, John Dickson Carr published The Crooked Hinge,[82] a locked room mystery in his line of Dr. Gideon Fell detective novels. Among the puzzles presented included an automaton that operates in a way that is unexplainable to the characters.[83] Gene Wolfe’s 1977 science fiction short story, “The Marvellous Brass Chessplaying Automaton”, also features a device very similar to the Turk.[84] F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre’s 2007 story “The Clockwork Horror” reconstructs Edgar Allan Poe’s original encounter with Mälzel’s chess-player, and also establishes (from contemporary advertisements in a Richmond newspaper) precisely when and where this encounter took place.[85] Robert Löhr’s 2005 book “Der Schachautomat” (translated in 2007 by Anthea Bell as “The Chess Machine”) is a fictional account of the origins of the mechanical Turk featuring a chess playing dwarf.


Walter Benjamin alludes to the Mechanical Turk in the first thesis of his Theses on the Philosophy of History (Über den Begriff der Geschichte), written in 1940:

“The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called ‘historical materialism’ is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight.




Baron von Kempelens Schach-„Automat“

Automaten und Androiden

Der barocken, materialistischen Geisteshaltung entsprechend, die durch Entwicklungen in Wissenschaft, Kunst und Technik die Welt – und somit den Menschen – als etwas Endliches, in seinen Teilen und in seiner Funktion Kalkulierbares, erkannt zu haben glaubte, erscheint die Mode, anthropomorphe Automaten oder Androiden zu entwickeln und zu besitzen, wie die verdichtete und materialisierte Form der zeitgenössischen Idee vom Menschen. Schon an der Schwelle zur Neuzeit warfen seine vorrationalistischen Zeitgenossen dem Universalgelehrten Albertus Magnus vor, er wäre ein Zauberer, was ihn nicht nur dämonisiseren sollte, sondern schlicht in Lebensgefahr brachte [vgl. Herbert Lachmeyer, in: Felderer 1996, S. 27]: „Grund dafür war die ihm zugeschriebene Erfindung eines als Klosterbruder gestalteten Automaten, der unliebsame Besucher abhalten sollte.“ [Ebda.] Das berühmteste Uhrwerk mit Automaten wurde 1352 im Straßburger Münster errichtet. Neben einem Astrolabium und einem ewigen Kalender, beide durch das Uhrwerk betrieben, besaß die Uhr auch das bewegte Figurenwerk Maria mit dem Kind, vor welchem die Heiligen Drei Könige vorbeizogen. Gott selbst kam auf einer Wolke mit Orgelmusikbegleitung und Glockenspiel vom Himmel herab, und ein Hahn konnte in Angedenken an Verrat und Treue Petri krähen und mit den Flügeln schlagen. [Vgl. Ernst Strouhal, ebda., S. 449] Auch René Descartes soll einen Automaten (eigentlich Androiden) namens Francine besessen haben, einige Autoren meinen, er hätte ihn erfunden. [Vgl. Ivanceanu/Schweikhardt 1997, S. 184f.]

Mit der gesteigerten Perfektion im Uhrwerkbau kommt es zur Transplantation des Uhrwerks – als Antrieb – in die Darstellung des ohnehin schon als Maschine begriffenen Menschen. So wird in den Androiden oder Automaten Anthropomorphes – in Form der Maschine – neben Maschinelles – in Form des biologischen Menschen – gesetzt.

Die herausragende Persönlichkeit unter den Automatenkonstrukteuren der Neuzeit war der Genfer Jacques de Vaucanson. [Vgl. Thomas Schlich, in: Van Dülmen 1998, S. 548]

Anonym: Automates de Vaucanson, Paris 1750, Radierung, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Vaucanson studierte die Bewegungsabläufe des Menschen ebenso wie den Aufbau und die Spielweise der Querflöte und fertigte einen künstlichen Flötenspieler. Bei diesem im Jahre 1738 präsentierten Androiden gelangte der mit Blasbälgen erzeugte Luftstrom durch den Mund und über die Zunge an das Mundstück der Flöte. Dort wurde der Ton gebildet, den die Finger, auf den entsprechenden Klappen liegend, vorgegeben hatten. Besonders bewundert wurde auch Vaucansons berühmte Ente, die, auf einem Podest stehend, nicht bloß watscheln, schnattern und mit den Flügeln schlagen, sondern erstaunlicherweise auch fressen, offenbar verdauen und sichtbar ausscheiden konnte. Die Ente war dermaßen perfekt gestaltet, daß sie sogar aus der Nähe für lebendig gehalten wurde. Für die Theoretiker bildeten die Triumphe der Technik die Grundlage ihrer Argumentation: Der französische Arzt und Philosoph Julien Offray de La Mettrie kannte Vaucansons Automaten aus eigener Anschauung. In seiner 1748 erschienen Schrift „L’Homme-Machine“ beschrieb er den Menschen als eine sich selbst steuernde Maschine, die sich wie ein Uhrwerk vollständig mit Hilfe physikalisch-mechanischer Prinzipien erklären lasse. La Mettrie meinte, Vaucanson müsse seine Kunst lediglich noch weiter steigern, um im Prinzip in der Lage zu sein, auch einen entsprechenden Androiden zu bauen. Die Natur

Anonym: Pseudo-canard de Vaucanson (Die Ente von Vaucanson), Ende 19. Jh., Photographie, Musé National des Trchniuqes du C.N.A.M., Paris

gehe im Prinzip genauso vor wie ein Automatenbauer, zur Erschaffung eines wirklichen Menschen bringe sie eben nur noch mehr Kunst auf als dieser. Menschenbild und Automatenbau standen in einer wechselseitigen Beziehung: Einerseits war es ein mechanistisch bestimmtes Bild vom Organismus, das als Grundlage für die Schaffung künstlicher Menschen in Form immer perfekterer Automaten diente, umgekehrt lieferte der Automatenbau wiederum das Modell für das Menschenbild. [Ebda.]

Ab 1739 wendete sich Jacques de Vaucanson der Rationalisierung menschlicher Arbeit zu. Die von ihm entwickelten Maschinen ahmen die Gesten der Arbeiter nach, sind auch der Form des menschlichen Körpers nachempfunden, vor allem aber rhythmisieren sie Arbeitsvorgänge im Sinn industrieller Produktionsweisen und erhöhen die Effizienz der Arbeit. [Vgl. Manuel Chemineau, in Felderer 1996, S. 348]

Als sprechendes Beispiel für das Verständnis des scheinbaren Nachbaues des menschlichen Körpers – einschließlich seiner Intelligenz – in Form von Androiden (hier als Kombination des Automaten und des anthropomorphen Androiden) möchte ich die Geschichte des „Türken“ des Barons von Kempelen zitieren, des wohl spektakulärsten Auftritts eines Androiden/Automaten. Bei gleichzeitiger Demonstration der Grenzen der Menschdarstellung spiegelt sie meines Erachtens alle Wunschvorstellungen um menschliches Vermögen ihrer Zeit wider. Zugleich muß die zweifellos beachtliche Kunstfertigkeit der technischen Realisierung dieser „Schachmaschine“ betont werden.

In einer Vorbemerkung zur Geschichte der Entstehung des Türken gibt Ernst Strouhal eine Erläuterung zum historischen Gebrauch des Schachspiels als Weltmetapher:

Wie die Uhr fungiert das Schachspiel seit dem Mittelalter als Modell der rationalistischen Welt und nimmt aufgrund seiner hohen Komplexität und Rationalität eine besondere Stellung unter den Spielen ein. Das Schachspiel ist das Modell einer spinozistischen Welt: Die Zahl der möglichen Züge ist zwar enorm groß, aber das Spiel bleibt endlich, deterministisch und durch Vernunft beherrschbar. […] [Die Welt] ist – potentiell – rechenbar, ein panlogisches, geschlossenes System, in dem Gesetzmäßigkeit, Regelhaftigkeit und Berechenbarkeit statt Willkür, Chaos oder Zufall herrschen. [Strouhal, in: ebda., S. 455]

Strouhal führt in seinem Essay eine Reihe von Auslösern an („das Verwerfen der Frage nach dem Ich, die mechanistischen Bilder vom Körper, dem Tier, der Seele und schließlich vom Menschen“[ebda., S. 458]), die letztlich in der Idee kulminierten, eine Schach spielende Maschine mit dem anthropomorphen Teil des scheinbar spielenden Türken zu konstruieren. Prinzipiell nimmt dieses Konzept wiederum die zweihundert Jahre später entworfene Turing-Maschine in Teilen ihrer Idee vorweg.[Vgl. ebda.]

Warum der anthropomorphe Teil dieses Pseudo-Automaten einen Türken darstellt, wird von keinem der von mir rezipierten Autoren behandelt. Ich vermute, daß das Welt-Spiel Schach in Form dieses Automaten auf die historische Bedrohung durch

Der Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen, Erklärungsversuche. Links: Der Automat, wie er dem Publikum vorgeführt wurde. Rechts: Der Automat, wie er tatsächlich funktionierte. Illustration in: Freiherr Joseph Friedrich zu Racknitz, Über den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen, Leipzig 1789.

die Türken anspielt, und gegen diese Macht sollten Personen aus dem Publikum, dem der „Türke“ vorgeführt wurde antreten, um sich mit ihr in der Kunst des Weltspiels zu messen.

Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804) präsentierte den Schach spielenden Türken 1769 der Kaiserin Maria Theresia, die sich unter anderem für Phänomene wie die Magnetismusexperimente des Franzosen Pelletier interessierte. Der Schachautomat übertraf diese Experimente und auch die Androiden des Zeitgenossen Jaquet-Droz bei weitem. „Die Maschine Kempelens hatte spielerisch von der Ratio Besitz ergriffen; eine Puppe hatte das schwerste aller Spiele, das Schach, erlernt.“ [Ebda.]

Das Publikum begegnete dem Automaten mit einer Mischung aus Schock und Lust. Die lebensgroße Puppe in türkischer Tracht saß an der Rückwand eines eleganten Holzkastens. Die Vorderseite, auf dem ein Schachbrett mit Holzfiguren stand, wies drei Türen auf, darunter eine Schublade. Vor der Vorstellung öffnete Kempelen die Abteilungen, um das Innere des Kastens vorzuzeigen. Die Zuseher erblickten ein Gewirr aus Walzen, Hebeln und Zahnrädern verschiedenster Größen. Mit einer Kerze durchleuchtete Kempelen den Automat Abteil für Abteil, danach bat Kempelen einen Freiwilligen aus dem Publikum an das Schachbrett, und endlich begann der Türke, sich selbständig zu bewegen. Bei jedem Zug war ein Rasseln und Ächzen von Zahnrädern zu hören.[Ebda.]

In diesem Fall waren diese Maschinengeräusche, im Gegensatz zu anderen Androiden und Automaten, wohl erwünscht, lenkten sie doch von dem Gedanken ab, die Maschine könnte von einem Menschen in ihrem Inneren betrieben werden. Die Kritik, so Ernst Strouhal, war sich nach der Vorstellung einig, eine technische Sensation gesehen zu haben. [Vgl. ebda., S. 458f.] Für eine kurze historische Zeit schien vieles, sogar die denkende Maschine möglich zu sein. Zugleich muß wohl auch eine gewisse Angstlust geherrscht haben, wie auch wir sie gegenüber der Entwicklung der Künstlichen Intelligenz empfinden. Strouhal spricht hier vom Schach spielenden Golem, jenem Geschöpf, das aufgrund seiner Unausgereiftheit zur Gefahr für seinen Erzeuger wird.

Der Premiere des Türken folgte eine Reihe von Vorführungen für die Wiener Gesellschaft. Es erschienen Artikel, Briefe, Kundmachungen und Flugschriften, die sich mit dem Geheimnis der Schach spielenden Maschine auseinandersetzten. Die zentrale Frage war, ob und wie einem Automaten/Androiden das freie, nicht vorherbestimmte Handeln beizubringen sei, ob der Türke also autonom funktionierte, denn dann wäre er durch die „Simulation der Freiheit der menschlichen Entscheidung“[ebda.] „über jeden Vergleich mit anderen Automaten erhaben, die wunderbarste Erfindung der Menschheit“ [Edgar Allan Poe, in: Völker 1994, S. 226.], wie Edgar Allan Poe noch 1836 – allerdings skeptisch – bemerken wird.

Die Beobachter der Vorführungen um 1770 waren „nach sorgfältiger Untersuchung“ zur Überzeugung gelangt, daß das „Automatum sich ganz alleine überlassen“ sei: „Die Maschine wirkt gänzlich durch sich selbst, so daß sie nicht den mindesten Einfluß erhält. Niemand steckt darin verborgen“, schreibt ein Korrespondent der Brünner Zeitung noch 1780, „aber eine Menge kleiner Rollen, worüber Saiten gespannt waren, verwirrten meinen Begriff, und es kam mir vor, als wenns eine Reihe von Vernunftschlüssen wären, deren letzteres Resultat darinn besteht, daß die Partie gewonnen ist.“[Brünner Zeitung 1780, in: Felderer 1996, S. 459]

Der Schöpfer dieses Automaten, der Baron von Kempelen, galt jedenfalls als neuer Prometheus, als Genie der Mechanik, als fortschrittlicher Aufklärer, zugehörig jenen „Biedermännern, die an Vertilgung der Vorurteile, der Misbräuche und des Aberglaubens Theil genommen, mithin die gute Sache eifrig unterstützt und befördert haben“ [J. Rautenstrauch, 1784 in: ebda.]. Je größer allerdings die Popularität Kempelens und seines Automaten wurde, desto größer wurde auch der Erklärungsbedarf und desto schwieriger wurde es, kritischen Fragen auszuweichen. Kempelen hatte seinen Ruf als seriöser Ingenieur und Beamter zu verlieren. Obwohl er bei jeder Vorstellung betonte, daß es sich um eine Täuschung handle, war es zu spät, die Täuschungen zu erläutern und so alle „sorgfältigsten Beobachter“[Strohal, in: ebda., S. 459] für Dummköpfe zu erklären. Aber abgesehen davon, daß der Automat nicht war, was das Publikum in ihm zu sehen glaubte, muß es sich doch um eine ihrer Zeit entsprechende Höchstleistung der Feinmechanik gehandelt haben;

Anonym: Armprothese aus dem 17. Jh., Länge 41 cm.

dem allein gebührt aus heutiger Sicht Beachtung. Eine Ahnung handwerklichen Vermögens dieser Art gibt eine Armprothese aus dem 17. Jahrhundert.

Um sich für einige Zeit aus der Affäre zu ziehen, erklärte Kempelen, daß die Maschine irreparabel beschädigt sei. Wenige Jahre später allerdings – der Anlaß dürfte akuter Geldmangel infolge der Experimente zur Entwicklung einer Sprechmaschine gewesen sein – suchte Kempelen um Urlaub an und präsentierte den Türken in ganz Europa.

Erschienen in den 70er Jahren des 18. Jahrhunderts noch durchwegs bewundernde Rezensionen der Vorstellungen des Türken, so änderte sich dies in den folgenden Jahrzehnten in Richtung einer kritisch philosophischen Rezeption. Der Türke, als technisches Wunder, wurde zum Gegenstand von Wissenschaft und Politik. [Vgl. ebda., S. 460] Nach Vorstellungen in Frankfurt veröffentlichte Johann Philipp Ostertag „philosophische Grillen“[Johann Philipp Ostertag: Etwas über den Kempelinschen Schachspieler. Frankfurt a. M. 1784, zit. n. ebda.] über den Kempelenschen Schachspieler. Er sah übernatürliche Kräfte im Türken wirken. Nach der Leipziger Präsentation im Jahr 1784 schlossen der Mathematiker Johann Jacob Hindenburg und nach ihm Carl Friedrich Ebert Metaphysik bereits aus. Sie machten elektrische und magnetische Ströme für eine externe Lenkung des Türken verantwortlich. Beide hielten den Türken für einen echten Automaten. Bis 1800 erschienen über hundert Texte über Kempelen und seinen Automaten/Androiden. [Vgl. Strouhal, in: ebda., S. 468] Letztlich war der Türke eine Maschine, die es durch das Nichtwissen um ihre Funktion gestattete, in ihr zu sehen, was die Gesellschaft der Zeit, entsprechend dem Stand der Wissenschaft, zu sehen erwartete, quasi ein technisch-philosophisches Placebo. Die belebte – und selbständig denkende – Maschine schien Wirklichkeit geworden zu sein, zugleich mußte La Mettrie Bestätigung gefunden haben, daß der Unterschied zwischen Mensch und Maschine zumindest ein fließender sei.

Schließlich wurden in Paris, London, und in Deutschland Stimmen laut, die einen Pseudoautomaten vermuteten. Kempelen wurde Täuschung und Betrug vorgehalten.

Allen voran hatte Freiherr Friedrich zu Racknitz mit großem Aufwand den Türken in zwei Modellen nachgebaut, um die Welt von den Mystifikationen über die denkende Maschine zu befreien. Racknitz entdeckte – wie übrigens vier Jahre vor ihm Lorenz Boeckmann aus Karlsruhe -, daß ein im Inneren des Kastens verborgener Spieler das äußere Geschehen am Schachbrett verfolgen könnte, wenn die Schachfiguren mit Magnetkernen versehen wären, wodurch bei Betreten eines bestimmten Feldes unmittelbar darunter angebrachte Metallnadeln angehoben würden. Zugleich beschrieb Racknitz die Lenkung des Türken von innen mit großer Präzision: Mittels einer Storchenschnabelmechanik war es dem Spieler möglich, Bewegungen am inneren (verkleinerten) Schachbrett über einen Seilzug durch den linken Arm des Türken auf das große Schachbrett zu übertragen. Man möchte annehmen, daß diese Enttarnungen zureichten, um aus dem Türken eine Technikreliquie im Status einer museumsreifen Kuriosität zu machen. Doch die Arbeiten von Boeckmann und Racknitz blieben fast resonanzlos. [Ebda.]

Noch fünfzig Jahre nach dem ersten Auftreten des Schach spielenden Automaten/Androiden gab es Berichte, die im Türken einen echten Schachautomaten vermuteten oder die zumindest nach einer unerklärlichen Lenkung von außen suchten. Nach dem Tod des Barons von Kempelen ging der Türke in den Besitz seines Sohnes über, der ihn schließlich an den Hofmechanikus Maelzel verkaufte. Damit begann ein neuer, nicht minder aufsehenerregender Abschnitt in der Karriere dieses in mehrfacher Hinsicht hybriden Automaten, einerseits wegen seines anthropomorphen Teils, dem androiden Türken, andererseits wegen der möglichst als solche unsichtbar bleiben wollenden Grenze zwischen Mensch, Menschabbildung und Maschine.

Bei Johann Nepomuk Maelzel befand sich der Türke erstmals in der Gesellschaft anderer Automaten. Maelzel besaß einen selbstgebauten Trompeter, eine mechanische Seiltänzerin und ein mechanisches Orchester, für das Ludwig van Beethoven 1813 die Ouvertüre op. 91 komponierte.[Vgl. ebda., S. 460f.] „Inmitten der sinnlichen und artistischen Darbietungen präsentierte der Schach spielende Automat die Simulation der intellektuellen Tätigkeiten des Menschen.“ [Ebda., S. 461] Auch Johann Nepomuk Maelzel ging mit dem Türken auf Tournee. Der Automat wurde, klandestin, wie es Ernst Strouhal treffend bezeichnet, gespielt von William Lewis, dem stärksten Spieler Englands in den 20er Jahren des 19. Jahrhunderts. Ein weiteres Mal wurden die Unschlüssigkeiten über die Funktion des Automaten aufgefrischt. 1825 legte erstmals Robert Willies eine Studie vor, die das Versteck des Spielers im Automaten plausibel zu erklären vermochte. [Vgl. ebda.]

Im selben Jahr verließ Maelzel, offenbar fluchtartig, Frankreich in Richtung New York, wo er am 3. Februar 1826 eintraf. In Amerika modifizierte er seinen Automaten; der konnte jetzt zusätzlich Whist spielen und, so wird kolportiert, auch „Schach“ sagen. [Ebda.] Ob es sich bei diesem Sprechvermögen nun um mechanisches oder menschliches handelte, ist vermutlich nicht mehr zu eruieren, jedenfalls wird in keiner Beschreibung dieser Automatenhistorie darauf eingegangen. Immerhin besteht die Möglichkeit, Maelzel könnte ein frühes Tonaufzeichnungs- und Wiedergabesystem entwickelt haben.

Seine amerikanische Premiere feierte der Türke am 13. April 1826 im National Hotel am Broadway. Strouhal weist anläßlich der Kontinentüberschreitung auf die unterschiedliche Rezeption des Türken hin. Während in Amerika wenig mehr als das Spektakel interessierte, erschienen in Europa laufend aufklärerische Schriften, die den Türken „als spätbarocke Manifestation der Utopie einer denkenden Maschine“ [ebda.] diskutierten.

Der Wert des Automaten/Androiden im Showbusiness hatte zur Folge, daß schon nach wenigen Monaten Nachbauten des Türken in Umlauf waren. Sein berühmtester Klon war der „American Automaton Chess Player“ der Brüder Walker. Er wurde von dem Engländer Charles Henry Stanley (1819-1901) gelenkt, der nach seiner Übersiedlung in die USA der stärkste Spieler vor Morphy war. [Vgl. Der Standard, 10. April 1999, Album]

In Baltimore ereignete sich schließlich jene Katastrophe für Maelzel, die schon Kempelen befürchtet hatte: „Zwei Jugendliche beobachteten den Spieler Wilhelm Schlumberger, als er nach der Vorstellung aus dem Türken stieg. Die „Baltimore Gazette“ berichtete in drei Folgen, sodaß erstmals ein Beweis für die Existenz des Menschen in der Maschine erbracht war.“ [Strouhal, in: Felderer 1996, S. 462]

Nach dem Tod auf See Johann Nepomuk Maelzels, am 21. Juli 1838 [vgl. Thomas Macho, in: ebda., S. 47], wurde der Türke in einem Museum in Philadelphia gelagert, wo er, relativ unbeachtet, am 5. Juli 1854 einem Brand zum Opfer fiel. [Vgl. Der Standard, s. o. ]

Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts war schließlich die Zeit der romantischen Automaten abgelaufen. Einige Jahrzehnte nach den letzten Auftritten des Türken hatte der spanische Ingenieur Torres y Quevedo einen elektromechanischen Schachspieler konstruiert. „Seine Leistung war bescheiden, aber der Mensch war nun tatsächlich aus der Maschine verschwunden. Oder ganz in sie hinein, wie man will.“ [Ebda.] Im Zeitalter der Automatisation, so Ernst Strouhal, hatten die mechanischen Automaten mit geheimnisumwitterten Innenleben „ihre Aura verloren“ [Strouhal, in Felderer 1996, S.462].

„Um 1837 entwarf der englische Mathematiker Charles Babbage (1791-1871) eine „Analytische Maschine“. Sie sollte einen Speicher haben, eine Bibliothek und mit Lochkarten mit den Menschen kommunizieren können. Mit der Analytischen Maschine sollte man nicht nur rechnen können, sondern sie könnte – läßt man ihr nur genügend Zeit – jede gewünschte Operation ausführen; im Prinzip präludiert die Maschine von Babbage bereits die Architektur der universalen Maschine von Turing.“ [Ebda.]

Wenn auch die Mechanik wie die Verfahrensweise des Türken nach Beendigung seiner Vorstellung bald keinen Anlaß mehr gab, diskutiert zu werden, so diente er doch als A-priori-Modell für philosophische Betrachtungen über den Menschen als Maschine oder über die Maschine als Mensch, und in zweiter Linie wurde er zum Stoff und Motiv für eine lange Liste literarischer und filmischer Bearbeitungen, die als Indiz für die außergewöhnliche Faszination stehen, die der Türke, als scheinbar belebte Maschine, verursachte.

Automaten und Androiden in Literatur und Film

In der Literatur- und Filmgeschichte spiegelt sich die lange währende Rezeptionsgeschichte vor allem des Schach spielenden Automaten – aber auch prinzipiell diverser Automaten und Androiden, hier vor allem Vaucansons und der Brüder Maelzel – im Motiv der künstlichen und scheinbar belebten anthropomorphen Figur wieder. Eine frühe polemische Reaktion riefen die Auftritte des Türken – hier noch im Besitz Barons von Kempelen – bei Jean Paul hervor. 1789 erschien der Essay „Wider die Einführung der Kempelinschen Spiel- und Sprechmaschinen“ in der „Auswahl aus des Teufels Papieren“ [Ebda., S. 466], worin Jean Paul das Prometheusmotiv aufnimmt und Kempelen, den „neuen Prometheus“ [ebda.] zum Teufel wünscht: : „Prometheus, der so gut wie Herr von Kempele Menschen erschuf, wurde dafür abgestraft: aber Herr von Kempele hat auch eine Leber.“ [Jean Paul, zit.n. ebda.] Wie später nur E. T. A. Hoffmann hat Jean Paul die Maschine als „evokatorisches Objekt“ [Strouhal, in: ebda.], als „Spiegel des entfremdeten Lebens“ [ebda.] erkannt. Interessant ist dabei, daß er – bei aller Polemik – den Türken und einen weiteren, sprechenden Androiden in seiner Schrift personifiziert, ihnen also – wohl in Folge uneingestandener Faszination – indirekt den Status zugesteht, gegen den er in seinem Text anzuschreiben vorgibt. Allerdings weist er auf die berechtigte Gefahr hin, daß menschliche Arbeitskraft infolge maschineller Aufrüstung obsolet werden muß:

„Es ist mehr als zuwohl bekannt, daß vor einiger Zeit zwei sonderbare Maschinen, wovon die eine spielte und die andere sprach, die große Tour durch Europa machten, und in den besten Städten abstiegen. Herr von Kempele leistete beiden Europafahrern als Spiel-, Sprach- und Hofmeister auf ihren Reisen so gute Gesellschaft als er konnte, und machte nicht wie tausend schlechtere Hofmeister ein Geheimnis daraus, daß er seine Eleven selbst gemacht. Indessen konnte doch niemand dazu ein besonderes saures Gesicht machen, dazumal diese Maschinen jung und alt durch ihre Uneigennützigkeit völlig hinrissen: denn es ist keine Erdichtung, sondern von hundert Zeugen bestätigt, daß sie von den ansehnlichen Summen, die ihnen für ihre Reden und Spiele einliefen, keinen Pfennig für sich erhielten, sondern alles ihrem armen Vater, dem Herrn von Kempele ohne Überwindung zusteckten. […] Schon von jeher brachte man Maschinen zum Markt, welche die Menschen außer Nahrung setzten, indem sie die Arbeiten derselben besser und schneller ausführten. Denn zum Unglück machten die Maschinen alle Zeit recht gute Arbeit und laufen den Menschen weit vor. Daher suchen Männer, die in der Verwaltung wichtiger Ämter es zu etwas mehr als träger Mittelmäßigkeit zu treiben wünschen soviel sie können ganz maschinenmäßig zu verfahren; um wenigstens künstliche Maschinen abzugeben, da sie unglücklicherweise keine natürlichen sein können.“ [Jean Paul, zit. n. Völker 1994, S. 118ff.]

Ein weiterer Aufsatz aus der „Auswahl“ handelt von einem Maschinenmenschen. Da der Autor nicht erwartet, von seinen Zeitgenossen ernst genommen zu werden, wendet er sich an die Bewohner des Saturn. Er geht davon aus, daß man einen solchen Maschinenmenschen nur jemandem näher bringen kann, der keine Vorstellung davon hat, wo tote Materie aufhört und Leben beginnt. In diesem Aufsatz beschreibt Paul, wie die Menschen entdecken, daß sie bestimmte Aufgaben mit Hilfe von Maschinen besser bewältigen können, und so beschreibt er Schreibvorrichtungen, die kopieren können, ein Kaugerät, eine Maschine für das Zuspitzen von Federkielen, eine Maschine zum Öffnen von Vorhängen und etliche mehr uns inzwischen bekannter Apparate. [Vgl. Jasia Reichardt, in Felderer 1996, S. 477] Dann aber kommt der Autor in eine Ebene, vergleichbar der des Freudschen Prothesengottes, in der die Menschen fünf Maschinen haben, die ihre fünf Sinne ersetzen. [Vgl. ebda.] Sie besorgen sich ihre Arme, Beine, ihre Augen, ihre Nasen und ihre Zähne aus einer Fabrik und stellen auch alle anderen Körperteile, einschließlich Rumpf, so her. Der Mensch, so Jean Paul, wird sich nicht einmal seine natürliche Individualität bewahren, er wird sich von Technikern eine anpassen lassen. Die verschiedenen Körperteile haben so für den Menschen nichts Lebendiges, sie erwachen erst zum Leben, wenn man sie verbindet. [Vgl. ebda.]

In einem frühen Text von Jean Paul, Menschen sind Maschinen der Engel (1785), wird die Angst evoziert, „der Mensch selbst könnte die Maschine anderer Wesen sein“ [Wolfgang Müller-Funk, in: ebda., S. 486]. Wolfgang Müller-Funk interpretiert diese spielerische Kleinprosa als eine „theoretische Versuchsanordnung, die Maschine zu denken“ [ebda.]. So schreibt Jean Paul: „Denn es ist keine poetische Redensart, sondern kahle, nackte Wahrheit, daß wir Menschen bloße Maschinen sind, deren sich höhere Wesen, denen die Erde zum Wohnplatz beschieden worden, bedienen.“ [Jean Paul, zit.n. ebda., S. 497] Im Vergleich zur Kempelenschen Schach- beziehungsweise zu seinen Sprachmaschinen, die Jean Paul anregten, erscheinen diese als schlechte Kopien eines Originals, wie die Menschen nicht bloß schlechte „Maschinen der Engel“ sind, „sondern deren schlechte Nachahmer: Maschinen, die Maschinen erzeugen.“ [Müller-Funk, in: ebda.]

Auffällig allerdings bleibt, daß sich Ähnlichkeit wie Differenz nicht nur auf die Funktionsweise der Maschine beziehen, sondern vorrangig auf ihr Äußeres, die Menschähnlichkeit der Androiden und umgekehrt, die Maschinenähnlichkeit des Menschen.

Die Puppe und der Automat [Androide] sind, obschon nutzlose Spielfiguren zum Zeitvertreib, die Leitmetapher, um das, was man heute als das Imaginäre der Maschine bezeichnen könnte zu begreifen. Die romantische Vorliebe für den maschinell reduzierten Kunst-Menschen hat ganz offenkundig mit eben der Perspektive zu tun, die Maschinen als die falschen und wahren Doppelgänger des Menschen auszuweisen und in der Welt des Fiktiven, der Literatur, zur Aufführung zu bringen. Erst diese Ästhetik rückt die Maschine in die Nähe des Monströsen und Mythischen, die in der materialistisch-aufklärerischen Perspektive nicht vorgesehen sind. [Ebda.]

Um das ambivalente Mensch-Maschinen-Verhältnis aufzuzeigen, wie es sich in der Literatur darstellt, die solcherart polemisch auf die Beschäftigung vor allem mit anthropomorphen oder humanoiden Maschinen reagiert, vergleicht Müller-Funk zwei Erzählungen E. T. A. Hoffmanns:

Zwischen den Medien mesmeristischer Sitzungen, die mit Hilfe einer komplexen Apparatur, von einem fremden (menschlichen und übermenschlichen) Willen gesteuert, sprechen und agieren, und den Kopfgeburten ingeniöser Erfinder besteht eine erhellende, strukturelle Homologie, wie ein Seitenblick auf zwei Erzählungen E. T. A. Hoffmanns, „Der Magnetiseur“ und „Der Sandmann“, zeigt. Maria[1], die mesmerisierte Frau, und Olimpia, die Puppe von Professor Spalanzani, zeichnen sich beide dadurch aus, daß sie schweigen und – banal, aber wichtig – daß sie Frauen sind.[2] Sie schweigen, weil sie sich – das eine Mal als Testperson für die mesmeristische Übertragung, das andere Mal als Blickfang männlicher Projektion herhaltend – besonders gut für einen Prozeß eignen, der in den beiden Erzählungen, nimmt man sie zusammen, ein gegenläufiger ist: Die magnetische Behandlung verwandelt die Frau in einen psychischen Apparat, während der imaginäre männliche Blick, der die tote Puppe phantasmatisch besetzt, sie gleichsam zum Leben erweckt und alles Maschinenhafte im Sinn eines fest umrissenen Bildes von Weiblichkeit umdeutet. Weil dieses Bild fix und fixiert ist, muß die starre, schweigende, stille Automaten-Frau (jenes Wesen, das Nathanael die reale, alltägliche Frau vergessen läßt, die nicht umsonst Klara heißt) beinahe zwangsläufig als himmlisch erscheinen. In dieser Befangenheit ist die Maschine die ideale Frau und die himmlische Superfrau, das Reprodukt der imaginären, ja geheimnisvollen Frau, die Distanz hält und deren kalte Ferne dafür sorgt, daß das Spiel der Einbildungskraft kein Ende findet. In diesem Blick auf die Maschine ist jene Ausdruck der Resurrektion von Mythos und Märchen. [Ebda., S. 498]

Im romantischen Kontext erscheinen so der fiktive Konstrukteur des maschinellen Doppelgängers und auch der Magnetiseur, der die Frau zur „psychischen Apparatur“ [Müller Funk, in: ebda., S. 499] macht „als dämonisch-magischer Agent finsterer Mächte, als hypertropher Sekundärdemiurg, als Konfiguration einer unheilvollen und frevelhaften Selbstüberhebung; bei Jean Paul hingegen ist er ein Philister, der in der gefügigen, stummen, hölzernen Ehefrau sein passendes Pendant findet.“ [Ebda. (Die Anspielung nimmt Bezug auf Jean Pauls satirische Erzählung Einfältige, aber gutgemeinte Biographie einer neuen angenehmen Frau von bloßem Holz, die ich längst erfunden und geheiratet.)] Es kehrt sich auch das Verhältnis zwischen Kopie und Vorbild um: Die lebenden Frauen – wie Klara im Sandmann – ähneln der konstruierten Puppen-Frau beziehungsweise versuchen sie, sich demonstrativ von ihr zu unterscheiden, wie das unten angeführte Beispiel aus dem Antihypochondriakus zeigen soll.[3]

Ernst Strouhal führt in seinem Essay über die Motivgeschichte des Schachspiels und der künstlichen Intelligenz [vgl. Strouhal, in: Felderer 1996], neben E. T. A. Hoffmann und Jean Paul, auch ein Märchen von Wilhelm Hauff aus dem Jahr 1826 an, um seinerseits die Unsicherheit des Menschen im 19. Jahrhundert bezüglich seiner Identität im Verhältnis zu seinem künstlichen „Simulakrum“ [ebda., S. 467] zu veranschaulichen. In „Der Mensch als Affe“ verwendet Hauff Descartes Motiv der Tiermaschine: Im deutschen Städtchen Grünwiesel wird ein Affe unerkannt zum Mitglied der Gesellschaft. Er unterbindet die Diskussion über sein tierisches Wesen letztlich dadurch, daß er den Oberpfarrer im Schach schlägt.

Das Motiv der schachspielenden Tiermaschine hatte in Europa bereits eine lange Tradition. Einem Affen beim Schachspiel begegnet man in Christian Fürchtegott Gellerts Gedicht „Der Affe“ (der Affe, der nichts vom Spiel versteht, belehrt zwei ratsuchende Knaben), in „De Spaansche Robinson“ von Don Blas de Soria Origuela, einer freien Bearbeitung von Daniel Defoes Robinson (1758: 40ff, der Affe verblüfft mit seiner Kenntnis des Schachspiels, sodaß er von den Kiebitzen, die ihn für den Teufel halten, ertränkt wird) und im „Exilium melancholiae“ (1643: 382; der Affe schlägt seinen Herrn zweimal im Schach und wird verprügelt). Die historische Spur des schachspielenden Affen endet bei Petrarca. In der „Artzney bayder Glück“ (1532) heißt es in einer Kritik des Schachspiels: „Plinius sagt/ das ein Aff imm schach gespilt habe/ ein recht affenspil ists/ affen künden auch die stayn hin und wider rucken/ inns bretspil werffen/ das klappt.“ [Ebda., S. 467f.]

E. T. A. Hoffmann führt in seiner Erzählung „Die Automate“(1814) einen Androiden ein, der in offenbar direkter Anlehnung an den Kempelenschen Schachspieler „Der Türke“ genannt wird, und der in der Lage ist, die Zukunft vorherzusagen. Dieses Bild trifft die schon erwähnte Endlichkeit des Universums wie sie etwa Leibniz beschreibt; zugleich entspricht Hoffmanns Türke auch dem Maschinenentwurf Leibniz’, da in einem endlichen (Welt-) System, bei ausreichender Rechenkapazität letztlich auch zukünftiges Geschehen, als eine Folge, berechnet werden kann. Hoffmann vereint also das endliche Universum mit der Möglichkeit des Menschen, den Menschen als Maschine oder die Maschine als Menschen – in Form des Androiden – zu gestalten.

Eine erschreckendere Vision über das Verhältnis des Menschen zu seinem künstlichen Pendant gibt E. T. A. Hoffmann in seiner Erzählung „Der Sandmann“ aus dem Jahr 1816. Hier entscheidet sich der Student Nathanael anstelle seiner Verlobten für die vermeintliche Tochter des Physicus Spalanzani, Olimpia. Als er ihr einen Heiratsantrag stellen will, erweist sie sich aber als Androide, die zwanzig Jahre erfordernde Arbeit Spalanzanis und des Alchimisten und Uhrmachers Coppelius (= Schmelztiegel der Alchimisten), von denen der zweite nicht zuletzt für die Entwicklung der Augen verantwortlich war, die die Lebendigkeit der Puppe suggerieren. Überhaupt ist eines der herausragenden Motive in Hoffmanns Erzählung das Problem der – literarisch akzeptablen – Art der Belebung der Puppe. Der Literaturwissenschafter Rudolf Drux gibt eine ausführliche Analyse dieses Problems, aus der hier zitiert werden soll, um eine Vorstellung der aufwendigen und bildreichen Komposition Hoffmanns geben zu können:

Beide Motivbereiche, Auge und Automat, sind allerdings ineinander verschränkt. Solange ihn Olimpias Augen „seltsam starr und tot“ anmuten, ist Nathanael die Holzpuppe „höchst gleichgültig“; sie fesselt ihn erst, als sie, durch das Perspektiv betrachtet, allmählich „Sehkraft“ und damit Leben erlangt. Bei ihrem Konzertvortrag greift er wieder zu „Coppolas Glas“ und nimmt ihren sein Herz entflammenden „Liebesblick“ wahr. In ihr Auge schauend, das ihm „Liebe und Sehnsucht“ verrät, fühlt er in dem ansonsten „eiskalten“ Körper „des Lebensblutes Ströme“ pulsierend fließen. Und erst, wenn er im Moment ihrer Zerstörung, der sich ihm als fürchterliche Mordszene darstellen muß, ihr „toderbleichtes Wachsgesicht“ sieht, dem die Augen fehlen, begreift er: „sie war eine leblose Puppe“ (36,8f.) Ihre Belebung wird also durch den Blick des Beobachters verursacht, der den Grad ihrer Lebendigkeit an ihren Augen abliest. [Drux 1994, S. 59]

Gerade letztere Feststellung erinnert an das kolportierte Rezeptionsverhalten gegenüber dem schachspielenden Türken, der sein langes Dasein offenbar dem Phänomen verdankte, daß er als Maschine – in seinen Fähigkeiten dem Menschen adäquat – wahrgenommen werden wollte. Der Blick des Beobachters schloß die Tatsache aus, keine autarke, sondern eine von einem Menschen dirigierte Maschine vorgeführt zu bekommen.

Über die verstrickten Assoziationsmöglichkeiten im Sandmann und den Zusammenhang zwischen Leben, Augen und Sehen gibt Drux eine umfassende Übersicht, und er verweist unter anderem auf die Etymologie des Namens Coppolas, des Herstellers der Augen der Olimpia, der sowohl „die Augenhöhle als auch den Schmelztiegel, in dem die alchimistischen Stoffe voneinander scheiden, zu assoziieren erlaubt.“ [Ebda., S. 62] Ein Motiv wie das der belebten Holzpuppe, so Drux in seiner Analyse, „findet sich um 1800 in allen künstlerischen Disziplinen und verweist auf umfassende kulturgeschichtliche Problembereiche, etwa auf den Widerspruch zwischen rationalistischer Zergliederung und romantischer Durchdringung der Natur.“ [Ebda., S. 89] Als erläuterndes Beispiel führt Drux eine ältere Geschichte um eine belebte Puppe an, die zwar große Ähnlichkeit mit der Hoffmanns aufweist, wahrscheinlich aber nicht zum direkten Vorbild wurde, sondern nur als eines von vielen zeitgenössischen Phänomenen gelten darf. Es handelt sich um eine Erzählung aus der 1792 erschienen Anekdotensammlung „Antihypochondriakus oder etwas zur Erschütterung des Zwerchfells und zur Beförderung der Verdauung“.

[Die Geschichte] handelt von einem Taschenspieler, der sich eine wunderschöne weibliche Puppe aus Eichenholz mit einem Wachsgesicht herstellen ließ, die sich mittels einer Maschinerie bewegen konnte. Diese Puppe habe er als lebend ausgegeben und gegen Geld zur Schau gestellt. Unter den Betrachtern seien bald Verliebte gewesen, die ihn mit Geschenken überhäuften und denen er ein Stelldichein mit der Angebeteten versprechen mußte. Er habe sie auf eine bestimmte Stunde alle miteinander zu einem tête à tête bestellt und sich rechtzeitig selber aus dem Staub gemacht. Die Verehrer hätten zunächst geglaubt, ihr ´Engel´ (S.XIII) schliefe. Bei der ersten Berührung jedoch sei eine wächserne Hand abgebrochen und in viele Stücke zerborsten. Die Desillusionierung sei allgemein gewesen und habe „eine Revolution in der Denkart vieler junger Personen beiderley Geschlechts zuwege gebracht.“ (S.XIII) Die schönen Damen hätten sich hinfort Mühe gegeben, sich so zu verhalten, daß man sie ohne weiteres auch von einer geschickt angefertigten Puppe hätte unterscheiden können. [Ebda., S. 90]

Und auch Drux merkt an, daß die Herstellung von Automaten, von singenden, tanzenden und sprechenden Puppen, vor allem seit der zweiten Hälfte des 18. Jahrhunderts in ganz Europa mit Aufmerksamkeit verfolgt wurde und so ein beliebtes und weitverbreitetes Motiv für die Literatur lieferte. „Hoffmann hat sich nachweislich mit dieser Thematik stark auseinandergesetzt. Die Pläne, einen eigenen Automaten zu bauen […], sind genauso überliefert wie die Tatsache, daß der Autor die Konstruktion der beiden Automatenbauer Johann Georg und Friedrich Kaufmann besichtigt hat […].“ [Ebda., S. 91]

Das Automatenmotiv sieht Rudolf Drux in einem größeren Zusammenhang, den Hoffmann mit seiner Erzählung anvisierte:

Die literarische Darstellung des Wahnsinns, die Erwähnung des Abenteurers, Geistersehers und Alchemisten Cagliostro [16,18], die Anspielung auf Lazzaro Spallanzani [16,5][4], einen Naturwissenschaftler, der sich mit Arbeiten über den Vulkanismus und über künstliche Befruchtung einen Namen machte, verweisen auf eine Epoche der Wissenschaftsgeschichte, an der Hoffmann Anteil hatte und zu der Der Sandmann eine Art Kommentar darstellt. Der euphorische Glaube, Lebewesen herstellen oder täuschend nachahmen zu können, beruhte wie manche wissenschaftliche Theorie des Zeitalters – etwa der Browniaismus und der Mesmerismus – auf der Annahme einer tiefgreifenden Affinität zwischen lebenden Organismen und leblosen Substanzen. Die beiden, zunächst genuin aufklärerischen Wissenschaftszweige, die „natürliche“ (mechanistische) und die „übernatürliche“ (elektrische, magnetische) Physik gerieten in ein immer größeres Spannungsverhältnis zueinander, bis sich bei der letzteren die ursprüngliche Herkunft ganz verdunkelte. Als Schwärmerei oder – je nach Standpunkt des Urteilenden – als romantische Wissenschaft trat sie in einen Gegensatz zur aufklärerischen […] – ein Prozeß, der Hoffmann nicht gleichgültig geblieben sein konnte. Jedenfalls darf der Sandmann als eine Stellungnahme zu diesem Prozeß gelesen werden. [Drux 1994, S. 91]

Eine jüngste Paraphrase auf den angesprochenen Epochengeist und seine Beschäftigung mit scheinbar belebten künstlichen Gebilden in Menschenform stellt Federico Fellinis Spielfilm „Casanova“ aus dem Jahr 1976 dar. Im Schlußbild dreht sich der Titelheld, der sich in seinem Verhalten als von Automaten beeinflußt erweist und schließlich, dem Klischee entsprechend, selbst Maschinencharakter erlangt, mit einer mechanischen Puppe auf dem zugefrorenen Canale Grande. In der mechanischen und willenlosen Puppe erkennt der Protagonist offenbar die lange gesuchte, ihm adäquate Frau. Fellini beschreibt in seinem Drehbuch Casanova als „eine elektrifizierte Marionette“ [Federico Fellini 1977, zit. n. ebda., S. 151f.] mit dem zwanghaften „Eros einer Kolbenmaschine“ [ebda.]. „Dem Greis, der an seinem Mythos eines unermüdlichen Liebhabers bastelt, zeigt sich in einer letzten Vision, was seinem Wesen entspricht: Eiseskälte und Leblosigkeit.“ [Drux 1994, ebda.]

„Im Dunkel, das jetzt von Lichtströmen aufgehellt wird, erkennt man eine unbewegliche kleine Frauengestalt. Casanova tritt zu ihr heran und streichelt sie zärtlich; das Geschöpf erwacht mit kleinen schaukelnden, ruckartigen Bewegungen zum Leben; es ist die mechanische Puppe, die sich umdreht und Casanova in andeutungsweiser kalter Zärtlichkeit die Arme entgegenstreckt. Mit abgehackten Bewegungen, die von der Dunkelheit in eine mühsame undeutliche Pantomime verwandelt werden, lädt die Puppe Casanova ein, ihr zu folgen und entfernt sich mit langen marionettenhaften Schritten. Der Gefährte folgt ihr, ein sanfter vertrauensvoller Zombie.“ [Fellini 1977, zit.n. ebda., S.152f.]

Zu einem besseren Verständnis des Phänomens der Schach spielenden Maschine halte ich die folgende Übersicht über die umfangreichen literarischen Folgen, die Ernst Strouhal in seinem Essay gibt, als dienlich:

Edgar Alan Poe, der 1834 in Richmond der Vorstellung des Türken beiwohnte, publizierte im April 1836 seinen skeptischen Artikel Maelzel’s Chess Player im Southern Literary Messenger, der 1857 auf Französisch in der Übersetzung von Charles Baudelaire erschien. [Vgl. Strouhal, in: Felderer 1996, S. 466] 1798 gelangte in Mannheim das Lustspiel in vier Aufzügen Die Schachmaschine von Heinrich Beck zur Uraufführung und in Paris, 1801, Le Joueur d’Echecs von Benoit-Joseph Marsollier. In London folgte 1866 das Theaterstück in drei Akten von J. Walker: Modus Operandi or The Automaton Chess Player. In Warschau erschien 1881 Ludwik Niemojowskis Novelle Szach i mat!, die 1967 verfilmt wurde, in London 1899 Sheila Braines Roman Turkish Automaton. [Vgl. ebda.]

Im 20. Jahrhundert erwähnt Walter Benjamin den Kempelenschen Automaten an prominenter Stelle, und zwar in der ersten geschichtsphilosophischen These:

„Bekanntlich soll es einen Automaten gegeben haben, der so konstruiert gewesen sei, daß er jeden Zug eines Schachspielers mit einem Gegenzug erwidert habe, der ihm den Gewinn der Partie sicherte. Eine Puppe in türkischer Tracht, eine Wasserpfeife im Munde, saß vor dem Brett, das auf einem geräumigen Tisch aufruhte. Durch ein System von Spiegeln wurde die Illusion erweckt, dieser Tisch sei von allen Seiten durchsichtig. In Wahrheit saß ein buckliger Zwerg darin, der ein Meister im Schachspiel war und die Hand der Puppe mit Schnüren lenkte. Zu dieser Apparatur kann man sich ein Gegenstück in der Philosophie vorstellen. Gewinnen soll immer die Puppe, die man ‘historischer Materialismus’ nennt. Sie kann es ohne weiteres mit jedem aufnehmen, wenn sie die Theologie in ihren Dienst nimmt, die heute bekanntlich klein und häßlich ist und sich ohnehin nicht darf blicken lassen.“ [Walter Benjamin, zit. n. Felderer 1996, S. 462]

Benjamin diente der Vergleich mit dem vermeintlichen Schach-Automaten, um auf das versteckt theologische Element in der Theoriemaschine des Materialismus hinzuweisen, ein Einwand, wie wir ihn schon von Julien de La Mettrie gegenüber Descartes und vor allem gegenüber dem „heiligen“ Albrecht von Haller kennen: „Will sie [die materialistische Theoriemaschine] es mit jedem aufnehmen, und das hat sie getan, muß sie den häßlichen menschlichen Zwerg des Glaubens in den Dienst ihrer Spiele nehmen.“ [Benjamin, zit. n. ebda.]

1926 erscheint in Paris der Roman Le Joueur d’Échecs von Henry Dupuy-Mazuel, der wie zuvor Sheila Braine die Handlung ins revolutionäre Polen verlegt. Im selben Jahr wird der Roman von R. Bernard stumm verfilmt, 1938 folgt ein Tonfilm von Jean Dréville, eine Videoedition erscheint 1993. 1923 schon erschien bei Universal Production Tod Brownings Stummfilm White Tiger mit Priscilla Dean in der Hauptrolle. „In White Tiger verarbeitet Browning das romantische Automatenmotiv im Kriminalfilm. Der Türke dient den Dieben Roy und Silvia als Versteck bei einem Juwelenraub. Am Ende entdecken die beiden, daß sie eineiige Zwillinge sind, die in ihrer Kindheit getrennt wurden.“ [Strouhal, in: ebda., S. 466f.] 1947 nimmt Siegfried Lenz das Kempelen-Motiv im 3. Teil seines Hörspiels Klingendes Schachspiel, eingespielt in Hamburg, auf. Zu den populärsten Bearbeitungen des Motivs nach dem zweiten Weltkrieg wurden neben der Novelle von R. Rebensburg Die Majestätsbeleidigung von 1949 und dem ungarischen Roman von Szlatnei Reszö Kempelen, a varázsló (Budapest 1957) vor allem der Film von Jean Louis Buñuel Maelzels Schachspieler, der 1965 in Paris entstand, und Thomas Garvins Roman Kingkill, erschienen in New York 1977.

Im Science-Fiction-Film der Gegenwart gehören Schach spielende Automaten zum fixen Inventar. Das Vanitasmotiv wird mit dem Motiv der Bedrohlichkeit des Nichtfunktionierens des Androiden verbunden, eine Angstphantasie, wie sie unter anderem die Golemlegende schon verbreitet, oder wie sie, das Pandoramotiv paraphrasierend, Fritz Lang in seinem Stummfilm Metropolis (Berlin 1926), basierend auf der Romanvorlage seiner Frau Thea von Harbou, bearbeitete. In 2001 – A Space Odyssey (USA 1968) von Stanley Kubrick schlägt der Computer Hal, als er noch funktioniert, die Astronauten beim Schach, die er später terminieren wird. In Ridley Scotts Blade Runner aus dem Jahr 1982 erhält der titanenhafte Androide durch das Lösen eines Schachrätsels Zugang zu seinem Schöpfer, besiegt ihn mit einem Damenopfer und bricht ihm anschließend das Genick.

Ein Resümee der Rezeptionsgeschichte des Türken und der Ente Vaucansons gibt in einem Essay Manuel Chemineau [vgl. Chemineau, in: Felderer 1996, S. 346]. Er hält fest, daß der Erfolg einer solchen „Simulation“ [ebda.], wie sie der Schachtürke darstellt, von der „Begehrenskraft des Glaubens an die Illusion“ [ebda.] abhängt. Der Schwindel um den Türken ist undenkbar, wenn nicht die Überzeugung besteht, daß es einem Mechanismus jedenfalls möglich sei, eine so menschliche Tätigkeit wie das Schachspielen auszuführen. „Es ist diese gewollte wie höchst aktive Gläubigkeit des Zuschauers und des Jahrhunderts, die die Ente Vaucansons zum Leben erweckt, und nicht so sehr das Talent des genialen Mechanikers, Leben nachzuäffen. Scheinen nicht ihre heute nur mehr auf Photos erhaltenen ‘Überreste’, ihr Skelett noch vom vergangenen Leben zu zeugen?“ [Ebda.]

Unter Berücksichtigung der umfangreichen Rezeptionsgeschichte des Türken des Barons von Kempelen möchte ich noch zwei Vermutungen festhalten: Der Ausdruck „etwas türken“ im Sinn von „fälschen“ scheint seinen Ursprung wohl aus der Diskussion um die Verifizierung des Türken zu haben, nämlich als wirklichem Automaten oder als gefälschtem, von dem sein Erfinder nur vorgibt, es handle sich um einen Automaten.

Ein ähnliches Sprachphänomen könnte die Ente Vaucansons zur Folge gehabt haben, die nicht als Automat, sondern als echte Ente präsentiert wurde. Eine Zeitungsmeldung, die zuerst als Darstellung tatsächlichen Sachverhalts erscheint, sich später aber als Erfindung entpuppt, nennt man „Ente“. Eine aktuelle französische Zeitung betreibt die programmatische Verbreitung erfundener, aber wie Tatsachenberichte auftretender Meldungen. Ihr Name ist Le Canard Enchainé, „Die angekettete Ente“.
Die Hofkammermaschinisten Johann Nepomuk und Leonhard Maelzel

Thomas Macho spricht in seinem Essay über die Brüder Maelzel von Doppelgängergeschichten [vgl. Macho, in: ebda., S.47] in der romantischen Literatur eines E. T. A. Hoffmann, Adelbert von Chamisso („Peter Schlehmihls Wundersame Geschichte“, Nürnberg 1814), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein oder Der neue Prometheus, London 1814) und späteren Autoren wie Edgar Allan Poe („William Wilson“). Zu ergänzen ist diese Liste jedenfalls durch Robert Louis Stevensons Erzählung „Der seltsame Fall des Dr. Jekyll und Mr. Hyde“(London 1886). All diese Werke handeln im weitesten Sinn von dem oben schon angesprochenen Phänomen einer Vervielfachung der Persönlichkeit beziehungsweise einer Selbstreproduktion. Macho erwähnt in diesem Zusammenhang „frühromantische Maschinenträume“ und „demiurgische Phantasmen“ [ebda.], die sich, im Gegensatz zu ihren literarischen Varianten, in gelebter Form – zugleich in einer vielschichtig ambivalenten, was ihr Verhältnis zueinander und zu ihren Hervorbringungen, den Automaten, betrifft – in den Biographien der Hofkammermaschinisten Johann Nepomuk und Leonhard Maelzel manifestieren.

„Die beiden Brüder stammten aus der freien Reichsstadt Regensburg; sie wurden als Söhne eines angesehenen, wenngleich erfolglosen Orgelbauers und Mechanikers am 15. August 1772 (Johann Nepomuk) beziehungsweise am 27. März 1783 (Leonhard) geboren.“ [Ebda.] Beide erlernten das Klavierspiel und brachten es zu großer Fertigkeit.

Ungefähr im gleichen Alter (1792, 1805) zogen die Brüder nach Wien, um in der kaiserlichen Residenzstadt Musikautomaten und mechanische Kunstwerke zu bauen. Beide wurden schließlich (1808, 1827) zu kaiserlich-königlichen Hofkammermaschinisten ernannt. Eine nahezu klassische Doppelgängerkomödie: Die meisten Lexika und Enzyklopädien verwechseln zumeist die Identitäten beziehungsweise Biographien der Brüder Maelzel. Johann Nepomuk galt im allgemeinen als Erfinder des Metronoms, dann wiederum Leonhard; ebenso beim Panharmoncon. Beim hölzernen Trompeterautomaten wird Johann Nepomuk als dessen „Vater“ anekdotisch vorgestellt, führt Thomas Macho diesbezüglich an, obwohl letzteres chronologisch möglich wäre: Johann Nepomuk könnte den Trompeter vor seiner Abreise nach Amerika gebaut haben.

Es heißt, Napoleon hätte den Trompeter – über den Verbleib des Originals ist nichts bekannt – bei Johann Nepomuk in Schönbrunn bewundert und sofort ein Duplikat bestellt. [Vgl. ebda.] Dann wieder war es Leonhard, der 1848 die Plünderung seiner Werkstatt verhindert habe, indem er den Trompeter in der Uniform eines kaiserlichen Kürassiers am Fenster auftreten ließ. Vermutlich hat Johann Nepomuk die späteren Verwechslungen und Mißverständnisse auch dadurch begünstigt, daß er vor seiner Übersiedlung nach Amerika zum Jahresende 1825 (s.o.) sämtliche Patente und Eigentumsrechte an den verbleibenden Automaten auf seinen Bruder übertrug. Er kehrte nicht mehr zurück; am 21. Juli 1838 wurde er an Bord der Brigg „Otis“, die ihn vom Hafen Laguayra in Havanna nach Philadelphia bringen sollte, tot aufgefunden. Johann Nepomuk war an den Folgen einer akuten Alkoholvergiftung gestorben. Der „Erfinder des Metronoms“ wurde mit einer Eisenkugel an den Füßen im Meer versenkt; sein jüngerer Bruder verstarb beinahe zwei Jahrzehnte später, am 17. August 1855, an Cholera in Wien. [Vgl. ebda., S. 47f.]

Ein verbessertes Modell des Trompeters wurde 1810 vom Gehilfen der Brüder Maelzel, Friedrich Kaufmann, entwickelt. [Vgl. ebda., S. 48] Es handelt sich um einen der beiden Brüder Kaufmann, die auch mit E. T. A. Hoffmann in Sachen Automaten in Verbindung standen. Der Kaufmannsche Trompeter steht heute im Deutschen Museum in München. Schließlich wird auch noch kolportiert, daß Johann Nepomuk Maelzel 1804 den Schach spielenden Türken vom Sohn des Konstrukteurs, Wolfgang von Kempelen, um die Summe von 10.000 Francs gekauft hätte.

Das Arbeitsgebiet der Hofkammermaschinisten war vielfältig, obgleich es sich im großen und ganzen um die menschliche Anatomie drehte: Angesichts der napoleonischen Kriege befaßte sich Johann Nepomuk mit der Herstellung von Beinprothesen, die von der „Baierischen Nationalzeitung“ am 11. Oktober 1809 hochgelobt wurden: „[…] Er wußte durch eine äußerst einfache, leichte und doch dauerhafte Mechanik ein Leben in die [künstlichen, wie sie schon weiter oben genannt werden] Füße zu bringen, welches von Kunstverständigen und Anatomen bewundert wird, und wodurch diese künstlichen Füße beinahe von natürlichen nicht zu unterscheiden sind. Die siebenfache Biegung des Knies und die dreifache des Forderfusses erlauben, daß man damit ganz bequem auf Treppen und Pferde steigen kann. […]“ [Henrik Leonhard, zit.n. ebda.]

Der erfolgreiche Trompeter aber, und erst recht der Türke Wolfgang von Kempelens, wiesen in die von Thomas Macho konstatierte „ersehnte Richtung“ [Macho, in: ebda. S. 51], nämlich das Erschaffen von Doppelgängern der Menschen, etwa „als eine täuschend echte Versammlung von Androiden, die ein ganzes Orchester imitieren konnten. Maelzel träumte vom künstlich erweckten Leben, von sprechenden Puppen, vom mechanical theatre.“ [Ebda.] 1809 versprach er dem Korrespondenten der „Leipziger Allgemeinen Musikalischen Zeitung“ die automatische Sängerin, und prompt schrieb der begeisterte Feuilletonist:

„Lange nicht mehr war das Theater so gedrängt voll, und selten wurde ein verdienstvoller Künstler mit einem so über alles gehenden Beyfalls-Klatschen aufgenommen! Sollte Hr. Melzel seine vorhabende Maschine, von der man vieles sprach und die singen wird, vollenden, so dürfte es manchem Sänger und mancher Sängerin bange ums Herz werden. Denn wird die Maschine diesem Trompeter ähnlich: so wird sie weder falsch, noch ausser Takt, ja sie wird sogar ohne ungeziemende Variationen singen, und Worte aussprechen, welches neues Wunder allein die Liebhaber der Musik haufenweise in die Theater ziehen wird! Und dann die Leichtigkeit für die Direktionen, sich so einen Sänger und so eine Sängerin anzuschaffen! Es ist nur zu besorgen, Hr. Melzel möchte nicht alle einlaufenden Bestellungen befriedigen können! Theaterspiel, Mimik, Bewegungen braucht es wohl dann nicht mehr. Wir gewöhnen uns an Automaten! Eine schöne Stimme, ein schönes Gesicht, ein schönes Kleid: dafür wird Hr. Melzel wohl sorgen.“ [Leipziger Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, 1809, zit.n. ebda., S. 52]

Hier zeigt sich ein anschauliches Beispiel der Motivfindung für die 1816 erschienene Erzählung E. T A. Hoffmanns, Der Sandmann, und der darin singenden und tanzenden Puppe Olimpia.

Wenig später wurde das Ensemble der Androiden durch einen winzigen Seiltänzer ergänzt, „der sofort Liebling jedes Publikums war. Er ging von Hand zu Hand; keinerlei Mechanik war sichtbar. Es war nicht zu fassen: auf einem 30 Fuß langen Schleppseil tanzte, turnte, hüpfte, sprang er mit unglaublicher Leichtigkeit und Anmut zu Maelzels vollendeter Pianobegleitung. ‘Oh là là!’ sagte er, wenn er fertig war. Maelzel verbeugte sich knapp“. [Leonhard, zit.n. ebda.]

Fotografie des Tendlerschen Seiltänzers, Adalbert Kurka, o.J., Stadtmuseum Eisenerz, Steiermark

Ein anderer Puppentänzer sagte „Mama“, wieder ein anderer „Papa“, und so hatte Maelzel, an Stelle der automatischen Sängerin, die sprechenden Kinderpuppen erfunden, wobei über das Verfahren der Lautproduktion – oder vielleicht -reproduktion? – nur eine vage Erklärung anhand eines erhaltenen Kupferstichs über die künstliche Lungenfunktion (siehe die Abbildungen)[5] vorliegt, aus der nicht hervorgeht, ob dieser Entwurf so auch in den beschriebenen Androiden zur Anwendung kommen konnte. Auf der Pariser Industrieausstellung von 1823 wurden seine kreatürlichen Entwicklungen gezeigt, „die ‘Mama’ sagten, wenn man ihre rechte Hand zur Schulter hob, und ‘Papa’, wenn man die linke ebenso bewegte“. [A. Fraser, in: Felderer 1996, S. 52]

Künstliche Lungenfunktion, Illustration in: Wolfgang von Kempelen: Mechanismus der menschlichen Sprache nebst der Beschreibung seiner sprechenden Maschine, Kupferstich, Wien 1791, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Wien

In Amerika arbeitete Johann Nepomuk Maelzel an seinem wirklichen Orchester [vgl. Macho, in: ebda.], das „kein unförmiger Klotz, kein metallischer Golem“ [ebda.] sein sollte, wie es Thomas Macho ausdrückt. 1829 präsentierte Maelzel in Boston das ultimative Panharmonicon, „ein Orchester aus zwey und vierzig Automaten, […] aus den sämmtlichen Mitgliedern eines Orchesters, und selbst der Capell=Meister ist ein Automat. Am bewunderungswürdigsten sind die Violin=Spieler, indem sie Bogen und Finger mit staunenswürdiger Accuratesse und ergreifendem Ausdrucke bewegen. Die Trommeln, Pauken, kleinen Pfeifen, Triangel und Glöckchen werden von künstlichen Mohren gespielt. […]“. [Franz Heinrich Böck, zit. in Felderer 1996, ebda.]

Wie schon oben angemerkt, konnten die „Träume vom rätselhaften Androiden“ [Macho, in: ebda., S. 53] infolge technischer Neuerungen die Wende zum 20. Jahrhundert nicht überleben. Und auch das seit 1805 entwickelte und ehemals von Eugène Beauharnais angekaufte Panharmonicon wurde zwar nochmals restauriert, verbrannte aber im Stuttgarter Landesmuseum nach einem Bombenangriff im Zweiten Weltkrieg.

Über die Analogie zwischen einer Gesellschaft, die regelmäßig funktioniert und insofern kalkulierbar und lenkbar wird, und dem Prinzip der Maschine merkt der Philosoph Thomas Macho an, daß das von Johann Nepomuk Maelzel entwickelte Metronom als eine Art Exerzierhilfe diente. [Vgl. ebda.] Er sieht darin ein Bindeglied „zwischen Marschallstab und Dirigentenstock, zwischen der organisatorischen Neugliederung des Heeres und des bürgerlichen Orchesters“ [Ebda.].

[Graham] Bell & Clark: Prototyp des Telefonhörers mit dem Trommelfell einer menschlichen Leiche, 1874.

Einen letzten, allgemeineren Aspekt in die Problematik der Automaten beziehungsweise Androiden bringen die Autoren Ivanceanu und Schweikhardt ein. Der Mensch, der ihrer Meinung nach immer schon durch „Krankheit, Tod, Alter, Verfall und den Fluch evolutionären und historischen Verschwindens in seiner Eitelkeit schwer angeschlagen“ [Ivanceanu/Schweikhardt 1997, S. 184] ist, läßt sich, „angewidert von seinem hinfälligen Erstkörper im Schnellverfahren scheiden und verliebt sich augenblicklich in einen anderen, viel besseren und schöneren, den er eigenhändig aus seiner Eisenrippe schafft“ [Ebda.]. Sie verweisen hiermit auf den Roboter, dessen Vorläufer sicher unter den Automaten zu suchen sind, und speziell auch auf Charles Fourier „als Begründer einer wahrhaftig techno-pataphysischen Konditionalwissenschaft […], der als überzeugter Verfechter einer sogenannten harmonischen Revolution die notwendige Verbesserungswürdigkeit des Körpers und den Anspruch auf Vervollkommnung proklamiert.“ [Ebda.]

Auszug aus:

E. Wenzel Mraček: Simulatum Corpus. Vom künstlichen zum virtuellen Menschen.

Diplomarbeit am Inst.f. Kunstgeschichte, Graz 2001

[1] Auch in Fritz Langs Stummfilm Metropolis heißt die willenlose, allerdings mit einem Auftrag „programmierte“ Maschinenfrau Maria.

[2] Vgl. in diesem Sinn die unten beschriebene Schlußszene mit der Puppe in Federico Fellinis Film Casanova. Der Protagonist findet seine Erfüllung (bei Fellini auch die Erfüllung seines Klischees) nicht in einer menschlichen, sondern in einer mechanischen Frau als Manifestation seines Denkens. Und ebenso wie im allgemeinen Olimpia (wenn sie nicht einstudierten Gesang zum besten gibt, sagt sie nur „Ach, Ach!“ und „Gute Nacht, mein Lieber!“) schweigt auch sie, vielmehr erweist sie sich als „herrliche Zuhörerin“ (E. T .A. Hoffmann: Der Sandmann. Stuttgart 1998 (= Universal-Bibliothek Nr. 230), S. 34.).

[3] Im Zusammenhang mit der Liebe, die einer künstlichen Frau entgegengebracht wird, erscheint mir die Vermutung angebracht, daß auch Pygmalion – der Frauenhasser – Liebe nur für ein von ihm selbst hervorgebrachtes Kunstprodukt empfinden konnte, dem Ausdruck seiner selbst oder seines Selbst. Unter diesem Aspekt bedeutete der Mythos von Narziß nur eine Verdichtung jenes von Pygmalion.

[4] Duden: Spallanzani, Lazzaro, *1729, V 1799, ital. Naturforscher; entdeckte den Blutkreislauf bei Kaltblütern; lieferte den experimentellen Nachweis der Befruchtung der Eier durch Spermien (künstliche Samenübertragung bei Hunden).

[5] Zu diesem Problem hat Klaus Theweleit – im Zusammenhang mit seiner Arbeit über Personifizierungen des Orpheus-und-Euridike-Mythos – recherchiert. Die Ergebnisse führen wiederum zu Entwicklungen der Physiologie/Anatomie: „ … 1839 hatte der ‘große rheinische Physiologe’ und persönliche Gesprächspartner Goethes, Johannes Müller, mehrere Kehlköpfe von Leichen – deren Beschaffung sich in der Regel recht abenteuerlich gestaltete – entfernt, um die Produktionsbedingungen spezifischer Vokalklänge in concreto zu studieren. Als Müller einen Kehlkopf anblies, hörte es sich an, ‘wie eine Jahrmarktspfeife mit Gummimembran.’ […] (Johannes Müller: Über die Kompensation der physischen Kräfte am menschlichen Stimmorgan. Koblenz 1839).

Schon 600 Jahre früher hat der Stauferkaiser Friedrich II. sein Wissen von der Tonentstehung entsprechend genutzt. In seiner Handschrift „Über die Kunst mit Vögeln zu jagen“ findet sich ein Bericht über die Verwendung von Vogelkörperteilen zur Erzeugung von Locktönen: toten Kranichen wurde der Brustkorb, mit Lunge und Kehlkopf daran, herausoperiert. Die Lunge blies man auf; ließ man die Luft durch den Kehlkopf entweichen, schrie der tote Vogel seinen Kranichruf. Die erste Maschine zur Wiedergabe einer Vogelstimme wurde aus dem Vogel selbst gebaut.“(alles: Theweleit 1991,S. 589.)

[…]tatsächlich wurden für die Erfindung von Grammophon und Telefon, die ersten schallaufzeichnenden und schallübertragenden technischen Geräte, menschliche bzw. tierische Körperteile benutzt, bevor Edison den Sprung in ein rein technisches Gerät gelang: Willis verwendet 1829 für seine Sprechmaschine, die eingegebene Schwingungsfrequenzen in hörbare Töne umwandelt, elastische Zungen, die den Zungen des menschlichen Munds nachgebaut waren.

Für die erste Sichtbarmachung gesprochener Töne in einer Spur verwendet Edouard Léon Scott 1857 als Vorläufer der Grammophonnadel eine Schweinsborste, die, an einer Membran befestigt, die Spur der Töne auf eine berußte Glasplatte schreibt. (Ebda., S. 587f.)




Maelzels Schachspieler

Schachtürke oder kurz Türke ist die umgangssprachliche Bezeichnung für einen vorgeblichen Schachroboter, der 1769 von dem österreichisch-ungarischen Hofbeamten und Mechaniker Wolfgang von Kempelen konstruiert und gebaut wurde. Der Erbauer ließ bei den Zuschauern den Eindruck entstehen, dass dieses Gerät selbständig Schach spielte. Tatsächlich war darin aber ein menschlicher Schachspieler versteckt, der es bediente. Kopien des Geräts sind bis 1929 in diversen Vorführungen und Ausstellungen eingesetzt worden.


Die Schachmaschine bestand aus einer in türkische Tracht gekleideten Figur eines Mannes, der vor einem Tisch mit Schachbrett saß. Die Figur hat mit vielen bekannten Schachspielern der damaligen Zeit gespielt und meistens gewonnen. Der Türke begann immer die Partie, hob den linken Arm, bewegte die Schachfigur und legte den Arm dann wieder auf ein Polster zurück. Bei jedem Zug des Gegners blickte er auf dem Brett umher. War der Zug falsch, schüttelte er den Kopf und korrigierte die Position der Figur. Beim Schach der Dame nickte er zweimal, beim Schach des Königs dreimal mit dem Kopf. Alle Bewegungen waren von einem Geräusch ähnlich dem eines ablaufenden Uhrwerks begleitet.

Kempelen, der Erfinder, der jedem, der es sehen wollte, das Innere der Maschine und ihre Mechanik gerne zeigte, stand während des Spiels etwas abseits und blickte in einen kleinen Kasten, der auf einem Tisch stand. Er ließ unausgesprochen die Möglichkeit offen, dass eine Übermittlung durch einen Menschen an das Gerät erfolgte, lehnte es jedoch stets ab, einen Hinweis auf das zugrunde liegende Funktionsprinzip zu geben. Über eine mögliche magnetische Übertragung der Zugbefehle wurde seitens der Betrachter ebenso gerätselt wie über die Möglichkeit, die Maschine könne eigenständig bzw. zumindest für einen Abschnitt von mehreren Zügen ohne jede menschliche Einwirkung die Berechnungen ausführen.

Diese Schachmaschine erregte zur damaligen Zeit großes Aufsehen, da sie der erste Automat war, der scheinbar Schach spielen konnte. Ihr Erfinder Kempelen konnte sich der vielen Besucher nur erwehren, indem er später verkündete, er habe die Maschine zerstört oder diese sei vorübergehend nicht funktionsbereit.
Aufdeckung des Geheimnisses

Nach einigen Jahren führte er die Maschine in Wien Kaiser Joseph und dem Großfürsten Paul von Russland vor. Zwischen 1783 und 1785 unternahm er aufsehenerregende Reisen nach Paris, London und in verschiedene deutsche Städte. In Paris verlor der „Türke“ eine Partie gegen François-André Danican Philidor, den damals weltbesten Spieler. Wie aus einem Artikel im Journal des Savants (September 1783) hervorgeht, versuchten mehrere Wissenschaftler der Académie française erfolglos, die Funktionsweise der Maschine zu ergründen. In Berlin soll der „Türke“ 1785 angeblich eine Partie gegen Friedrich den Großen gespielt und ihn besiegt haben. Friedrich soll Kempelen für die Aufdeckung des Geheimnisses eine große Geldsumme geboten haben und, nachdem dies geschehen war, außerordentlich enttäuscht gewesen sein. Seitdem soll der „Türke“ unbeachtet in einer Abstellkammer im Potsdamer Schloss gestanden haben, bis Napoleon 1806 dorthin kam und sich seiner erinnerte. Auch er spielte gegen den Automaten und verlor. Diese Version der Geschichte beruht auf einem Artikel, der 1834 in der Zeitschrift Magazine pittoresque erschien und als Basis für weitere Artikel in Le Palamède 1836 und Fraser’s magazine 1839 diente, nach heutigem Stand der Forschung jedoch für unzutreffend gehalten wird. In Wirklichkeit fand die Partie gegen Napoleon sehr wahrscheinlich 1809 auf Schloss Schönbrunn in Wien statt.[1]

1804 kam der Automat in den Besitz des in Regensburg geborenen und später in Wien als Bürger lebenden Mechanikers Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, der sie nach dem Tod Kempelens dessen Sohn abkaufte und größere Reisen damit unternahm. Bernhard zu Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach berichtete, dass er den Schachtürken das erste Mal in Mailand bei Eugène de Beauharnais im Jahr 1812 gesehen habe. Er beschrieb auch den Besuch einer Vorstellung bei Mälzel in New York. [2] Er gelangte 1819 nach London und 1826[Notiz 1] in die Vereinigten Staaten. Aus dieser Phase ist eine Anzahl von Originalpartien erhalten, die teilweise mit Vorgabe gespielt wurden. Über die Maschine und die Zeit, in der sie Mälzel in den USA eingesetzt hat, ist eine ausführliche Biographie in englischer Sprache vorhanden.[3]

In London wies nach Kempelens Besuch Robert Willis mit Zeichnungen zuerst nach, dass in dem Automaten ein Mensch versteckt sein könne. Seine Entdeckung beschrieb er in dem Artikel „The attempt to analyse the automaton chess player“ im The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal. Aber erst 1838 teilte Thournay in der Revue mensuelle des echécs, Bd. 1, mit, dass wirklich Menschen darin versteckt waren. Wer diese Helfer Kempelens waren, ist bis heute nicht absolut sicher, aber es gibt Berichte, die behaupten, dass seine Tochter bis zu ihrer Erkrankung dafür eingesetzt wurde. Mälzel setzte zu diesem Zweck den Deutschen Johann Baptist Allgaier, in Paris die Franzosen Boncourt und Jacques François Mouret, in London den Schotten William Lewis und später den Elsässer Wilhelm Schlumberger ein.

Auch der amerikanische Schriftsteller Edgar Allan Poe analysierte das Geheimnis des Automaten und veröffentlichte eine mögliche Lösung in seinem Essay „Maelzel’s chess player“.

Andere Quellen berichten, dass das Geheimnis erstmals gelüftet wurde, als bei einer Vorführung auf einem Jahrmarkt ein Zuschauer „Feuer, Feuer“ rief. Mälzel öffnete daraufhin den Kasten, um den Spieler herauszulassen. Ein anderer Bericht besagt, dass auch die Brüder Walker, die den Automaten auch nachbauten, beobachteten, wie nach einer Veranstaltung im Hinterhof Schlumberger aus den Kasten kletterte und dieser auf den Schultern Mälzels verschwitzt weggetragen wurde.


Verbleib des Schachtürken

Nach dem Tod von Johann Nepomuk Mälzel gelangte der Schachtürke über einen Zwischenhändler in den Besitz des schachbegeisterten Arztes John K. Mitchell. Dieser schenkte den Automaten, nach einigen privaten Vorführungen, im Jahr 1840 dem Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia. Nach vierzehn Jahren als Ausstellungsstück verbrannte der türkische Schachspieler am 5. Juli 1854 bei einem Feuer im Museum.
Nachbauten und Fortleben
Werbeplakat für Ajeeb

Der erste echte Nachbau gelang bereits während der Reisen Mälzels durch Amerika. Die Brüder Walker führen bereits Mai 1827, nachdem Mälzel nach Baltimore weitergezogen war, in New York ihren American Chess Player vor. Nachdem Mälzel davon erfahren hatte, reiste dieser zwischendurch kurz zurück nach New York, besucht die Veranstaltung der Brüder Walker und machte das Angebot, ihren Automaten für $ 1000 zu kaufen und die Brüder bei ihm anzustellen. Die Brüder Walker lehnten ab, ihre Vorführungen waren auf längere Sicht, obwohl nur der halbe Eintrittspreis verlangt wurde, letztlich erfolglos und sie mussten die Veranstaltungen einstellen.[4]

Eine im Wesentlichen ähnliche Figur wurde zwischen 1865 und 1868 von Charles Hooper (1825–1900) aus Bristol gebaut und erhielt den Namen Ajeeb ‘Der Ägypter’. Das Gerät wurde zunächst bis 1876 in London gezeigt und gelangte 1885 in die USA. Dort wurde es im New Yorker Eden Museum ausgestellt und war eine Publikumsattraktion. Zu seinen Bedienern bei Vorführungen zählten einige der besten Spieler des Landes, darunter auch Harry Nelson Pillsbury und Constant Ferdinand Burille. 1929 wurde es auf Coney Island durch einen Brand zerstört.

Der Fabrikant Charles Godfrey Gümpel baute 1878 den Mephisto. Dieser elektromagnetisch über Kabel ferngesteuerte Automat wurde unter anderem von Isidor Gunsberg und Jean Taubenhaus bedient.

Das Interesse an der Geschichte des Schachtürken stieg mit dem Aufkommen der modernen Computertechnik erneut an. So ist eine moderne Rekonstruktion des Schachtürken heute Teil einer Dauerausstellung im Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum in Paderborn. Im Technischen Museum in Wien können Besucher heute gegen eine holografische Version des Schachtürken antreten.

Mehr als zwei Jahrhunderte nach dem Bau des Türken gehören Schachcomputer beziehungsweise Schachprogramme mit „übermenschlicher“ Spielstärke zur Realität. In das Programm Fritz wurde seit Version 9 ein Schachbrett mit animierter 3D-Darstellung des Schachtürken integriert.

Eine mögliche etymologische Herleitung des Ausdrucks „etwas türken“ oder „einen Türken bauen“ im Sinne von „etwas nur vorspiegeln“, „etwas fingieren“ bezieht sich auf die Figur des Schachtürken, weil die türkisch gekleidete Puppenfigur den Anschein einer denkfähigen Maschine erwecken sollte und lange erfolgreich erweckte. Die Redewendung ist also nicht fremdenfeindlich, sondern geht von einer damals konkreten Erfahrung aus, die nichts mit der angesprochenen Nationalität zu tun hatte. Das Gewand war exotisch und sollte die Betrachter wie in vielen Zaubertricks nur von der eigentlichen Täuschung ablenken. Ob diese Erklärung mit der tatsächlichen Herkunft der Redewendung und ihrem Gebrauch zu tun hat, ist nicht erwiesen.

Von Walter Benjamin wird der Schachtürke in seinen Thesen zur Geschichte als Allegorie auf das Verhältnis von Marxismus und Theologie genommen: „Gewinnen soll immer die Puppe, die man ‚historischen Materialismus‘ nennt. Sie kann es ohne weiteres mit jedem aufnehmen, wenn sie die Theologie in ihren Dienst nimmt, die heute bekanntlich klein und hässlich ist und sich ohnehin nicht darf blicken lassen.“ (Gesammelte Schriften I.2, S.693)


Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734–1804)Wolfgang von Kempelen



Edgar Allan Poe

Published in the April 1836 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger

PERHAPS no exhibition of the kind has ever elicited so general attention as the Chess-Player of Maelzel. Wherever seen it has been an object of intense curiosity, to all persons who think. Yet the question of its modus operandi is still undetermined. Nothing has been written on this topic which can be considered as decisive—and accordingly we find every where men of mechanical genius, of great general acuteness, and discriminative understanding, who make no scruple in pronouncing the Automaton a pure machine, unconnected with human agency in its movements, and consequently, beyond all comparison, the most astonishing of the inventions of mankind. And such it would undoubtedly be, were they right in their supposition. Assuming this hypothesis, it would be grossly absurd to compare with the Chess-Player, any similar thing of either modern or ancient days. Yet there have been many and wonderful automata. In Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic, we have an account of the most remarkable. Among these may be mentioned, as having beyond doubt existed, firstly, the coach invented by M. Camus for the amusement of Louis XIV when a child. A table, about four feet square, was introduced, into the room appropriated for the exhibition. Upon this table was placed a carriage, six inches in length, made of wood, and drawn by two horses of the same material. One window being down, a lady was seen on the back seat. A coachman held the reins on the box, and a footman and page were in their places behind. M. Camus now touched a spring; whereupon the coachman smacked his whip, and the horses proceeded in a natural manner, along the edge of the table, drawing after them the carriage. Having gone as far as possible in this direction, a sudden turn was made to the left, and the vehicle was driven at right angles to its former course, and still closely along the edge of the table. In this way the coach proceeded until it arrived opposite the chair of the young prince. It then stopped, the page descended and opened the door, the lady alighted, and presented a petition to her sovereign. She then re-entered. The page put up the steps, closed the door, and resumed his station. The coachman whipped his horses, and the carriage was driven back to its original position.

The magician of M. Maillardet is also worthy of notice. We copy the following account of it from the Letters before mentioned of Dr. B., who derived his information principally from the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia.

“One of the most popular pieces of mechanism which we have seen, Is the Magician constructed by M. Maillardet, for the purpose of answering certain given questions. A figure, dressed like a magician, appears seated at the bottom of a wall, holding a wand in one hand, and a book in the other A number of questions, ready prepared, are inscribed on oval medallions, and the spectator takes any of these he chooses and to which he wishes an answer, and having placed it in a drawer ready to receive it, the drawer shuts with a spring till the answer is returned. The magician then arises from his seat, bows his head, describes circles with his wand, and consulting the book as If in deep thought, he lifts it towards his face. Having thus appeared to ponder over the proposed question he raises his wand, and striking with it the wall above his head, two folding doors fly open, and display an appropriate answer to the question. The doors again close, the magician resumes his original position, and the drawer opens to return the medallion. There are twenty of these medallions, all containing different questions, to which the magician returns the most suitable and striking answers. The medallions are thin plates of brass, of an elliptical form, exactly resembling each other. Some of the medallions have a question inscribed on each side, both of which the magician answered in succession. If the drawer is shut without a medallion being put into it, the magician rises, consults his book, shakes his head, and resumes his seat. The folding doors remain shut, and the drawer is returned empty. If two medallions are put into the drawer together, an answer is returned only to the lower one. When the machinery is wound up, the movements continue about an hour, during which time about fifty questions may be answered. The inventor stated that the means by which the different medallions acted upon the machinery, so as to produce the proper answers to the questions which they contained, were extremely simple.”

The duck of Vaucanson was still more remarkable. It was of the size of life, and so perfect an imitation of the living animal that all the spectators were deceived. It executed, says Brewster, all the natural movements and gestures, it ate and drank with avidity, performed all the quick motions of the head and throat which are peculiar to the duck, and like it muddled the water which it drank with its bill. It produced also the sound of quacking in the most natural manner. In the anatomical structure the artist exhibited the highest skill. Every bone in the real duck had its representative In the automaton, and its wings were anatomically exact. Every cavity, apophysis, and curvature was imitated, and each bone executed its proper movements. When corn was thrown down before it, the duck stretched out its neck to pick it up, swallowed, and digested it. {*1}

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 a 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 unerring 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 In accordance with the data of the question to be solved, it should continue its movements regularly, progressively, and undeviatingly towards 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 juxta-position 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 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 towards 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 choose 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 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. Before entering upon this subject it would be as well to give a brief history and description of the Chess-Player for the benefit of such of our readers as may never have had an opportunity of witnessing Mr. Maelzel’s exhibition.

The Automaton Chess-Player was invented in 1769, by Baron Kempelen, a nobleman of Presburg, in Hungary, who afterwards disposed of it, together with the secret of its operations, to its present possessor. {2*} Soon after its completion it was exhibited in Presburg, Paris, Vienna, and other continental cities. In 1783 and 1784, it was taken to London by Mr. Maelzel. Of late years it has visited the principal towns in the United States. Wherever seen, the most intense curiosity was excited by its appearance, and numerous have been the attempts, by men of all classes, to fathom the mystery of its evolutions. The cut on this page gives a tolerable representation of the figure as seen by the citizens of Richmond a few weeks ago. The right arm, however, should lie more at length upon the box, a chess-board should appear upon it, and the cushion should not be seen while the pipe is held. Some immaterial alterations have been made in the costume of the player since it came into the possession of Maelzel—the plume, for example, was not originally worn. {image of automaton}

At the hour appointed for exhibition, a curtain is withdrawn, or folding doors are thrown open, and the machine rolled to within about twelve feet of the nearest of the spectators, between whom and it (the machine) a rope is stretched. A figure is seen habited as a Turk, and seated, with its legs crossed, at a large box apparently of maple wood, which serves it as a table. The exhibiter will, if requested, roll the machine to any portion of the room, suffer it to remain altogether on any designated spot, or even shift its location repeatedly during the progress of a game. The bottom of the box is elevated considerably above the floor by means of the castors or brazen rollers on which it moves, a clear view of the surface immediately beneath the Automaton being thus afforded to the spectators. The chair on which the figure sits is affixed permanently to the box. On the top of this latter is a chess-board, also permanently affixed. The right arm of the Chess-Player is extended at full length before him, at right angles with his body, and lying, in an apparently careless position, by the side of the board. The back of the hand is upwards. The board itself is eighteen inches square. The left arm of the figure is bent at the elbow, and in the left hand is a pipe. A green drapery conceals the back of the Turk, and falls partially over the front of both shoulders. To judge from the external appearance of the box, it is divided into five compartments—three cupboards of equal dimensions, and two drawers occupying that portion of the chest lying beneath the cupboards. The foregoing observations apply to the appearance of the Automaton upon its first introduction into the presence of the spectators.

Maelzel now informs the company that he will disclose to their view the mechanism of the machine. Taking from his pocket a bunch of keys he unlocks with one of them, door marked ~ in the cut above, and throws the cupboard fully open to the inspection of all present. Its whole interior is apparently filled with wheels, pinions, levers, and other machinery, crowded very closely together, so that the eye can penetrate but a little distance into the mass. Leaving this door open to its full extent, he goes now round to the back of the box, and raising the drapery of the figure, opens another door situated precisely in the rear of the one first opened. Holding a lighted candle at this door, and shifting the position of the whole machine repeatedly at the same time, a bright light is thrown entirely through the cupboard, which is now clearly seen to be full, completely full, of machinery. The spectators being satisfied of this fact, Maelzel closes the back door, locks it, takes the key from the lock, lets fall the drapery of the figure, and comes round to the front. The door marked I, it will be remembered, is still open. The exhibiter now proceeds to open the drawer which lies beneath the cupboards at the bottom of the box—for although there are apparently two drawers, there is really only one—the two handles and two key holes being intended merely for ornament. Having opened this drawer to its full extent, a small cushion, and a set of chessmen, fixed in a frame work made to support them perpendicularly, are discovered. Leaving this drawer, as well as cupboard No. 1 open, Maelzel now unlocks door No. 2, and door No. 3, which are discovered to be folding doors, opening into one and the same compartment. To the right of this compartment, however, (that is to say the spectators’ right) a small division, six inches wide, and filled with machinery, is partitioned off. The main compartment itself (in speaking of that portion of the box visible upon opening doors 2 and 3, we shall always call it the main compartment) is lined with dark cloth and contains no machinery whatever beyond two pieces of steel, quadrant-shaped, and situated one in each of the rear top corners of the compartment. A small protuberance about eight inches square, and also covered with dark cloth, lies on the floor of the compartment near the rear corner on the spectators’ left hand. Leaving doors No. 2 and No. 3 open as well as the drawer, and door No. I, the exhibiter now goes round to the back of the main compartment, and, unlocking another door there, displays clearly all the interior of the main compartment, by introducing a candle behind it and within it. The whole box being thus apparently disclosed to the scrutiny of the company, Maelzel, still leaving the doors and drawer open, rolls the Automaton entirely round, and exposes the back of the Turk by lifting up the drapery. A door about ten inches square is thrown open in the loins of the figure, and a smaller one also in the left thigh. The interior of the figure, as seen through these apertures, appears to be crowded with machinery. In general, every spectator is now thoroughly satisfied of having beheld and completely scrutinized, at one and the same time, every individual portion of the Automaton, and the idea of any person being concealed in the interior, during so complete an exhibition of that interior, if ever entertained, is immediately dismissed as preposterous in the extreme.

M. Maelzel, having rolled the machine back into its original position, now informs the company that the Automaton will play a game of chess with any one disposed to encounter him. This challenge being accepted, a small table is prepared for the antagonist, and placed close by the rope, but on the spectators’ side of it, and so situated as not to prevent the company from obtaining a full view of the Automaton. From a drawer in this table is taken a set of chess-men, and Maelzel arranges them generally, but not always, with his own hands, on the chess board, which consists merely of the usual number of squares painted upon the table. The antagonist having taken his seat, the exhibiter approaches the drawer of the box, and takes therefrom the cushion, which, after removing the pipe from the hand of the Automaton, he places under its left arm as a support. Then taking also from the drawer the Automaton’s set of chess-men, he arranges them upon the chessboard before the figure. He now proceeds to close the doors and to lock them—leaving the bunch of keys in door No. 1. He also closes the drawer, and, finally, winds up the machine, by applying a key to an aperture in the left end (the spectators’ left) of the box. The game now commences—the Automaton taking the first move. The duration of the contest is usually limited to half an hour, but if it be not finished at the expiration of this period, and the antagonist still contend that he can beat the Automaton, M. Maelzel has seldom any objection to continue it. Not to weary the company, is the ostensible, and no doubt the real object of the limitation. It Wits of course be understood that when a move is made at his own table, by the antagonist, the corresponding move is made at the box of the Automaton, by Maelzel himself, who then acts as the representative of the antagonist. On the other hand, when the Turk moves, the corresponding move is made at the table of the antagonist, also by M. Maelzel, who then acts as the representative of the Automaton. In this manner it is necessary that the exhibiter should often pass from one table to the other. He also frequently goes in rear of the figure to remove the chess-men which it has taken, and which it deposits, when taken, on the box to the left (to its own left) of the board. When the Automaton hesitates in relation to its move, the exhibiter is occasionally seen to place himself very near its right side, and to lay his hand, now and then, in a careless manner upon the box. He has also a peculiar shuffle with his feet, calculated to induce suspicion of collusion with the machine in minds which are more cunning than sagacious. These peculiarities are, no doubt, mere mannerisms of M. Maelzel, or, if he is aware of them at all, he puts them in practice with a view of exciting in the spectators a false idea of the pure mechanism in the Automaton.

The Turk plays with his left hand. All the movements of the arm are at right angles. In this manner, the hand (which is gloved and bent in a natural way,) being brought directly above the piece to be moved, descends finally upon it, the fingers receiving it, in most cases, without difficulty. Occasionally, however, when the piece is not precisely in its proper situation, the Automaton fails in his attempt at seizing it. When this occurs, no second effort is made, but the arm continues its movement in the direction originally intended, precisely as if the piece were in the fingers. Having thus designated the spot whither the move should have been made, the arm returns to its cushion, and Maelzel performs the evolution which the Automaton pointed out. At every movement of the figure machinery is heard in motion. During the progress of the game, the figure now and then rolls its eyes, as if surveying the board, moves its head, and pronounces the word echec (check) when necessary. {*3} If a false move be made by his antagonist, he raps briskly on the box with the fingers of his right hand, shakes his head roughly, and replacing the piece falsely moved, in its former situation, assumes the next move himself. Upon beating the game, he waves his head with an air of triumph, looks round complacently upon the spectators, and drawing his left arm farther back than usual, suffers his fingers alone to rest upon the cushion. In general, the Turk is victorious—once or twice he has been beaten. The game being ended, Maelzel will again if desired, exhibit the mechanism of the box, in the same manner as before. The machine is then rolled back, and a curtain hides it from the view of the company.

There have been many attempts at solving the mystery of the Automaton. The most general opinion in relation to it, an opinion too not unfrequently adopted by men who should have known better, was, as we have before said, that no immediate human agency was employed—in other words, that the machine was purely a machine and nothing else. Many, however maintained that the exhibiter himself regulated the movements of the figure by mechanical means operating through the feet of the box. Others again, spoke confidently of a magnet. Of the first of these opinions we shall say nothing at present more than we have already said. In relation to the second it is only necessary to repeat what we have before stated, that the machine is rolled about on castors, and will, at the request of a spectator, be moved to and fro to any portion of the room, even during the progress of a game. The supposition of the magnet is also untenable—for if a magnet were the agent, any other magnet in the pocket of a spectator would disarrange the entire mechanism. The exhibiter, however, will suffer the most powerful loadstone to remain even upon the box during the whole of the exhibition.

The first attempt at a written explanation of the secret, at least the first attempt of which we ourselves have any knowledge, was made in a large pamphlet printed at Paris in 1785. The author’s hypothesis amounted to this—that a dwarf actuated the machine. This dwarf he supposed to conceal himself during the opening of the box by thrusting his legs into two hollow cylinders, which were represented to be (but which are not) among the machinery in the cupboard No. I, while his body was out of the box entirely, and covered by the drapery of the Turk. When the doors were shut, the dwarf was enabled to bring his body within the box—the noise produced by some portion of the machinery allowing him to do so unheard, and also to close the door by which he entered. The interior of the automaton being then exhibited, and no person discovered, the spectators, says the author of this pamphlet, are satisfied that no one is within any portion of the machine. This whole hypothesis was too obviously absurd to require comment, or refutation, and accordingly we find that it attracted very little attention.

In 1789 a book was published at Dresden by M. I. F. Freyhere in which another endeavor was made to unravel the mystery. Mr. Freyhere’s book was a pretty large one, and copiously illustrated by colored engravings. His supposition was that “a well-taught boy very thin and tall of his age (sufficiently so that he could be concealed in a drawer almost immediately under the chess-board”) played the game of chess and effected all the evolutions of the Automaton. This idea, although even more silly than that of the Parisian author, met with a better reception, and was in some measure believed to be the true solution of the wonder, until the inventor put an end to the discussion by suffering a close examination of the top of the box.

These bizarre attempts at explanation were followed by others equally bizarre. Of late years however, an anonymous writer, by a course of reasoning exceedingly unphilosophical, has contrived to blunder upon a plausible solution—although we cannot consider it altogether the true one. His Essay was first published in a Baltimore weekly paper, was illustrated by cuts, and was entitled “An attempt to analyze the Automaton Chess-Player of M. Maelzel.” This Essay we suppose to have been the original of the pamphlet to which Sir David Brewster alludes in his letters on Natural Magic, and which he has no hesitation in declaring a thorough and satisfactory explanation. The results of the analysis are undoubtedly, in the main, just; but we can only account for Brewster’s pronouncing the Essay a thorough and satisfactory explanation, by supposing him to have bestowed upon it a very cursory and inattentive perusal. In the compendium of the Essay, made use of in the Letters on Natural Magic, it is quite impossible to arrive at any distinct conclusion in regard to the adequacy or inadequacy of the analysis, on account of the gross misarrangement and deficiency of the letters of reference employed. The same fault is to be found in the “Attempt &c.,” as we originally saw it. The solution consists in a series of minute explanations, (accompanied by wood-cuts, the whole occupying many pages) in which the object is to show the possibility of so shifting the partitions of the box, as to allow a human being, concealed in the interior, to move portions of his body from one part of the box to another, during the exhibition of the mechanism—thus eluding the scrutiny of the spectators. There can be no doubt, as we have before observed, and as we will presently endeavor to show, that the principle, or rather the result, of this solution is the true one. Some person is concealed in the box during the whole time of exhibiting the interior. We object, however, to the whole verbose description of the manner in which the partitions are shifted, to accommodate the movements of the person concealed. We object to it as a mere theory assumed in the first place, and to which circumstances are afterwards made to adapt themselves. It was not, and could not have been, arrived at by any inductive reasoning. In whatever way the shifting is managed, it is of course concealed at every step from observation. To show that certain movements might possibly be effected in a certain way, is very far from showing that they are actually so effected. There may be an infinity of other methods by which the same results may be obtained. The probability of the one assumed proving the correct one is then as unity to infinity. But, in reality, this particular point, the shifting of the partitions, is of no consequence whatever. It was altogether unnecessary to devote seven or eight pages for the purpose of proving what no one in his senses would deny—viz: that the wonderful mechanical genius of Baron Kempelen could invent the necessary means for shutting a door or slipping aside a pannel, with a human agent too at his service in actual contact with the pannel or the door, and the whole operations carried on, as the author of the Essay himself shows, and as we shall attempt to show more fully hereafter, entirely out of reach of the observation of the spectators.

In attempting ourselves an explanation of the Automaton, we will, in the first place, endeavor to show how its operations are effected, and afterwards describe, as briefly as possible, the nature of the observations from which we have deduced our result.

It will be necessary for a proper understanding of the subject, that we repeat here in a few words, the routine adopted by the exhibiter in disclosing the interior of the box—a routine from which he never deviates in any material particular. In the first place he opens the door No. I. Leaving this open, he goes round to the rear of the box, and opens a door precisely at the back of door No. I. To this back door he holds a lighted candle. He then closes the back door, locks it, and, coming round to the front, opens the drawer to its full extent. This done, he opens the doors No. 2 and No. 3, (the folding doors) and displays the interior of the main compartment. Leaving open the main compartment, the drawer, and the front door of cupboard No. I, he now goes to the rear again, and throws open the back door of the main compartment. In shutting up the box no particular order is observed, except that the folding doors are always closed before the drawer.

Now, let us suppose that when the machine is first rolled into the presence of the spectators, a man is already within it. His body is situated behind the dense machinery in cupboard No. T. (the rear portion of which machinery is so contrived as to slip en masse, from the main compartment to the cupboard No. I, as occasion may require,) and his legs lie at full length in the main compartment. When Maelzel opens the door No. I, the man within is not in any danger of discovery, for the keenest eye cannot penetrate more than about two inches into the darkness within. But the case is otherwise when the back door of the cupboard No. I, is opened. A bright light then pervades the cupboard, and the body of the man would be discovered if it were there. But it is not. The putting the key in the lock of the back door was a signal on hearing which the person concealed brought his body forward to an angle as acute as possible—throwing it altogether, or nearly so, into the main compartment. This, however, is a painful position, and cannot be long maintained. Accordingly we find that Maelzel closes the back door. This being done, there is no reason why the body of the man may not resume its former situation—for the cupboard is again so dark as to defy scrutiny. The drawer is now opened, and the legs of the person within drop down behind it in the space it formerly occupied. {*4} There is, consequently, now no longer any part of the man in the main compartment—his body being behind the machinery in cupboard No. 1, and his legs in the space occupied by the drawer. The exhibiter, therefore, finds himself at liberty to display the main compartment. This he does—opening both its back and front doors—and no person Is discovered. The spectators are now satisfied that the whole of the box is exposed to view—and exposed too, all portions of it at one and the same time. But of course this is not the case. They neither see the space behind the drawer, nor the interior of cupboard No. 1—the front door of which latter the exhibiter virtually shuts in shutting its back door. Maelzel, having now rolled the machine around, lifted up the drapery of the Turk, opened the doors in his back and thigh, and shown his trunk to be full of machinery, brings the whole back into its original position, and closes the doors. The man within is now at liberty to move about. He gets up into the body of the Turk just so high as to bring his eyes above the level of the chess-board. It is very probable that he seats himself upon the little square block or protuberance which is seen in a corner of the main compartment when the doors are open. In this position he sees the chess-board through the bosom of the Turk which is of gauze. Bringing his right arm across his breast he actuates the little machinery necessary to guide the left arm and the fingers of the figure. This machinery is situated just beneath the left shoulder of the Turk, and is consequently easily reached by the right hand of the man concealed, if we suppose his right arm brought across the breast. The motions of the head and eyes, and of the right arm of the figure, as well as the sound echec are produced by other mechanism in the interior, and actuated at will by the man within. The whole of this mechanism—that is to say all the mechanism essential to the machine—is most probably contained within the little cupboard (of about six inches in breadth) partitioned off at the right (the spectators’ right) of the main compartment.

In this analysis of the operations of the Automaton, we have purposely avoided any allusion to the manner in which the partitions are shifted, and it will now be readily comprehended that this point is a matter of no importance, since, by mechanism within the ability of any common carpenter, it might be effected in an infinity of different ways, and since we have shown that, however performed, it is performed out of the view of the spectators. Our result is founded upon the following observations taken during frequent visits to the exhibition of Maelzel. {*5}

I. The moves of the Turk are not made at regular intervals of time, but accommodate themselves to the moves of the antagonist—although this point (of regularity) so important in all kinds of mechanical contrivance, might have been readily brought about by limiting the time allowed for the moves of the antagonist. For example, if this limit were three minutes, the moves of the Automaton might be made at any given intervals longer than three minutes. The fact then of irregularity, when regularity might have been so easily attained, goes to prove that regularity is unimportant to the action of the Automaton—in other words, that the Automaton is not a pure machine.

2. When the Automaton is about to move a piece, a distinct motion is observable just beneath the left shoulder, and which motion agitates in a slight degree, the drapery covering the front of the left shoulder. This motion invariably precedes, by about two seconds, the movement of the arm itself—and the arm never, in any instance, moves without this preparatory motion in the shoulder. Now let the antagonist move a piece, and let the corresponding move be made by Maelzel, as usual, upon the board of the Automaton. Then let the antagonist narrowly watch the Automaton, until he detect the preparatory motion in the shoulder. Immediately upon detecting this motion, and before the arm itself begins to move, let him withdraw his piece, as if perceiving an error in his manoeuvre. It will then be seen that the movement of the arm, which, in all other cases, immediately succeeds the motion in the shoulder, is withheld—is not made—although Maelzel has not yet performed, on the board of the Automaton, any move corresponding to the withdrawal of the antagonist. In this case, that the Automaton was about to move is evident—and that he did not move, was an effect plainly produced by the withdrawal of the antagonist, and without any intervention of Maelzel.

This fact fully proves, 1—that the intervention of Maelzel, in performing the moves of the antagonist on the board of the Automaton, is not essential to the movements of the Automaton, 2—that its movements are regulated by mind—by some person who sees the board of the antagonist, 3—that its movements are not regulated by the mind of Maelzel, whose back was turned towards the antagonist at the withdrawal of his move.

3. The Automaton does not invariably win the game. Were the machine a pure machine this would not be the case—it would always win. The principle being discovered by which a machine can be made to play a game of chess, an extension of the same principle would enable it to win a game—a farther extension would enable it to win all games—that is, to beat any possible game of an antagonist. A little consideration will convince any one that the difficulty of making a machine beat all games, Is not in the least degree greater, as regards the principle of the operations necessary, than that of making it beat a single game. If then we regard the Chess-Player as a machine, we must suppose, (what is highly improbable,) that its inventor preferred leaving it incomplete to perfecting it—a supposition rendered still more absurd, when we reflect that the leaving it incomplete would afford an argument against the possibility of its being a pure machine—the very argument we now adduce.

4. When the situation of the game is difficult or complex, we never perceive the Turk either shake his head or roll his eyes. It is only when his next move is obvious, or when the game is so circumstanced that to a man in the Automaton’s place there would be no necessity for reflection. Now these peculiar movements of the head and eyes are movements customary with persons engaged in meditation, and the ingenious Baron Kempelen would have adapted these movements (were the machine a pure machine) to occasions proper for their display—that is, to occasions of complexity. But the reverse is seen to be the case, and this reverse applies precisely to our supposition of a man in the interior. When engaged in meditation about the game he has no time to think of setting in motion the mechanism of the Automaton by which are moved the head and the eyes. When the game, however, is obvious, he has time to look about him, and, accordingly, we see the head shake and the eyes roll.

5. When the machine is rolled round to allow the spectators an examination of the back of the Turk, and when his drapery is lifted up and the doors in the trunk and thigh thrown open, the interior of the trunk is seen to be crowded with machinery. In scrutinizing this machinery while the Automaton was in motion, that is to say while the whole machine was moving on the castors, it appeared to us that certain portions of the mechanism changed their shape and position in a degree too great to be accounted for by the simple laws of perspective; and subsequent examinations convinced us that these undue alterations were attributable to mirrors in the interior of the trunk. The introduction of mirrors among the machinery could not have been intended to influence, in any degree, the machinery itself. Their operation, whatever that operation should prove to be, must necessarily have reference to the eye of the spectator. We at once concluded that these mirrors were so placed to multiply to the vision some few pieces of machinery within the trunk so as to give it the appearance of being crowded with mechanism. Now the direct inference from this is that the machine is not a pure machine. For if it were, the inventor, so far from wishing its mechanism to appear complex, and using deception for the purpose of giving it this appearance, would have been especially desirous of convincing those who witnessed his exhibition, of the simplicity of the means by which results so wonderful were brought about.

6. The external appearance, and, especially, the deportment of the Turk, are, when we consider them as imitations of life, but very indifferent imitations. The countenance evinces no ingenuity, and is surpassed, in its resemblance to the human face, by the very commonest of wax-works. The eyes roll unnaturally in the head, without any corresponding motions of the lids or brows. The arm, particularly, performs its operations in an exceedingly stiff, awkward, jerking, and rectangular manner. Now, all this is the result either of inability in Maelzel to do better, or of intentional neglect—accidental neglect being out of the question, when we consider that the whole time of the ingenious proprietor is occupied in the improvement of his machines. Most assuredly we must not refer the unlife-like appearances to inability—for all the rest of Maelzel’s automata are evidence of his full ability to copy the motions and peculiarities of life with the most wonderful exactitude. The rope-dancers, for example, are inimitable. When the clown laughs, his lips, his eyes, his eye-brows, and eyelids—indeed, all the features of his countenance—are imbued with their appropriate expressions. In both him and his companion, every gesture is so entirely easy, and free from the semblance of artificiality, that, were it not for the diminutiveness of their size, and the fact of their being passed from one spectator to another previous to their exhibition on the rope, it would be difficult to convince any assemblage of persons that these wooden automata were not living creatures. We cannot, therefore, doubt Mr. Maelzel’s ability, and we must necessarily suppose that he intentionally suffered his Chess Player to remain the same artificial and unnatural figure which Baron Kempelen (no doubt also through design) originally made it. What this design was it is not difficult to conceive. Were the Automaton life-like in its motions, the spectator would be more apt to attribute its operations to their true cause, (that is, to human agency within) than he is now, when the awkward and rectangular manoeuvres convey the idea of pure and unaided mechanism.

7. When, a short time previous to the commencement of the game, the Automaton is wound up by the exhibiter as usual, an ear in any degree accustomed to the sounds produced in winding up a system of machinery, will not fail to discover, instantaneously, that the axis turned by the key in the box of the Chess-Player, cannot possibly be connected with either a weight, a spring, or any system of machinery whatever. The inference here is the same as in our last observation. The winding up is inessential to the operations of the Automaton, and is performed with the design of exciting in the spectators the false idea of mechanism.

8. When the question is demanded explicitly of Maelzel—”Is the Automaton a pure machine or not?” his reply is invariably the same—”I will say nothing about it.” Now the notoriety of the Automaton, and the great curiosity it has every where excited, are owing more especially to the prevalent opinion that it is a pure machine, than to any other circumstance. Of course, then, it is the interest of the proprietor to represent it as a pure machine. And what more obvious, and more effectual method could there be of impressing the spectators with this desired idea, than a positive and explicit declaration to that effect? On the other hand, what more obvious and effectual method could there be of exciting a disbelief in the Automaton’s being a pure machine, than by withholding such explicit declaration? For, people will naturally reason thus,—It is Maelzel’s interest to represent this thing a pure machine—he refuses to do so, directly, in words, although he does not scruple, and is evidently anxious to do so, indirectly by actions—were it actually what he wishes to represent it by actions, he would gladly avail himself of the more direct testimony of words—the inference is, that a consciousness of its not being a pure machine, is the reason of his silence—his actions cannot implicate him in a falsehood—his words may.

9. When, in exhibiting the interior of the box, Maelzel has thrown open the door No. I, and also the door immediately behind it, he holds a lighted candle at the back door (as mentioned above) and moves the entire machine to and fro with a view of convincing the company that the cupboard No. 1 is entirely filled with machinery. When the machine is thus moved about, it will be apparent to any careful observer, that whereas that portion of the machinery near the front door No. 1, is perfectly steady and unwavering, the portion farther within fluctuates, in a very slight degree, with the movements of the machine. This circumstance first aroused in us the suspicion that the more remote portion of the machinery was so arranged as to be easily slipped, en masse, from its position when occasion should require it. This occasion we have already stated to occur when the man concealed within brings his body into an erect position upon the closing of the back door.

10. Sir David Brewster states the figure of the Turk to be of the size of life—but in fact it is far above the ordinary size. Nothing is more easy than to err in our notions of magnitude. The body of the Automaton is generally insulated, and, having no means of immediately comparing it with any human form, we suffer ourselves to consider it as of ordinary dimensions. This mistake may, however, be corrected by observing the Chess-Player when, as is sometimes the case, the exhibiter approaches it. Mr. Maelzel, to be sure, is not very tall, but upon drawing near the machine, his head will be found at least eighteen inches below the head of the Turk, although the latter, it will be remembered, is in a sitting position.

11. The box behind which the Automaton is placed, is precisely three feet six inches long, two feet four inches deep, and two feet six inches high. These dimensions are fully sufficient for the accommodation of a man very much above the common size—and the main compartment alone is capable of holding any ordinary man in the position we have mentioned as assumed by the person concealed. As these are facts, which any one who doubts them may prove by actual calculation, we deem it unnecessary to dwell upon them. We will only suggest that, although the top of the box is apparently a board of about three inches in thickness, the spectator may satisfy himself by stooping and looking up at it when the main compartment is open, that it is in reality very thin. The height of the drawer also will be misconceived by those who examine it in a cursory manner. There is a space of about three inches between the top of the drawer as seen from the exterior, and the bottom of the cupboard—a space which must be included in the height of the drawer. These contrivances to make the room within the box appear less than it actually is, are referrible to a design on the part of the inventor, to impress the company again with a false idea, viz. that no human being can be accommodated within the box.

12. The interior of the main compartment is lined throughout with cloth. This cloth we suppose to have a twofold object. A portion of it may form, when tightly stretched, the only partitions which there is any necessity for removing during the changes of the man’s position, viz: the partition between the rear of the main compartment and the rear of the cupboard No. 1, and the partition between the main compartment, and the space behind the drawer when open. If we imagine this to be the case, the difficulty of shifting the partitions vanishes at once, if indeed any such difficulty could be supposed under any circumstances to exist. The second object of the cloth is to deaden and render indistinct all sounds occasioned by the movements of the person within.

13. The antagonist (as we have before observed) is not suffered to play at the board of the Automaton, but is seated at some distance from the machine. The reason which, most probably, would be assigned for this circumstance, if the question were demanded, is, that were the antagonist otherwise situated, his person would intervene between the machine and the spectators, and preclude the latter from a distinct view. But this difficulty might be easily obviated, either by elevating the seats of the company, or by turning the end of the box towards them during the game. The true cause of the restriction is, perhaps, very different. Were the antagonist seated in contact with the box, the secret would be liable to discovery, by his detecting, with the aid of a quick car, the breathings of the man concealed.

14. Although M. Maelzel, in disclosing the interior of the machine, sometimes slightly deviates from the routine which we have pointed out, yet reeler in any instance does he so deviate from it as to interfere with our solution. For example, he has been known to open, first of all, the drawer—but he never opens the main compartment without first closing the back door of cupboard No. 1—he never opens the main compartment without first pulling out the drawer—he never shuts the drawer without first shutting the main compartment—he never opens the back door of cupboard No. 1 while the main compartment is open—and the game of chess is never commenced until the whole machine is closed. Now if it were observed that never, in any single instance, did M. Maelzel differ from the routine we have pointed out as necessary to our solution, it would be one of the strongest possible arguments in corroboration of it—but the argument becomes infinitely strengthened if we duly consider the circumstance that he does occasionally deviate from the routine but never does so deviate as to falsify the solution.

15. There are six candles on the board of the Automaton during exhibition. The question naturally arises—”Why are so many employed, when a single candle, or, at farthest, two, would have been amply sufficient to afford the spectators a clear view of the board, in a room otherwise so well lit up as the exhibition room always is—when, moreover, if we suppose the machine a pure machine, there can be no necessity for so much light, or indeed any light at all, to enable it to perform its operations—and when, especially, only a single candle is placed upon the table of the antagonist?” The first and most obvious inference is, that so strong a light is requisite to enable the man within to see through the transparent material (probably fine gauze) of which the breast of the Turk is composed. But when we consider the arrangement of the candles, another reason immediately presents itself. There are six lights (as we have said before) in all. Three of these are on each side of the figure. Those most remote from the spectators are the longest—those in the middle are about two inches shorter—and those nearest the company about two inches shorter still—and the candles on one side differ in height from the candles respectively opposite on the other, by a ratio different from two inches—that is to say, the longest candle on one side is about three inches shorter than the longest candle on the other, and so on. Thus it will be seen that no two of the candles are of the same height, and thus also the difficulty of ascertaining the material of the breast of the figure (against which the light is especially directed) is greatly augmented by the dazzling effect of the complicated crossings of the rays—crossings which are brought about by placing the centres of radiation all upon different levels.

16. While the Chess-Player was in possession of Baron Kempelen, it was more than once observed, first, that an Italian in the suite of the Baron was never visible during the playing of a game at chess by the Turk, and, secondly, that the Italian being taken seriously ill, the exhibition was suspended until his recovery. This Italian professed a total ignorance of the game of chess, although all others of the suite played well. Similar observations have been made since the Automaton has been purchased by Maelzel. There is a man, Schlumberoer, who attends him wherever he goes, but who has no ostensible occupation other than that of assisting in the packing and unpacking of the automata. This man is about the 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 to be seen during the exhibition of the Chess-Player, although frequently visible just 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 farther comment, to the reader.

17. The Turk plays with his left arm. A circumstance so remarkable cannot be accidental. Brewster takes no notice of it whatever beyond a mere statement, we believe, that such is the fact. The early writers of treatises on the Automaton, seem not to have observed the matter at all, and have no reference to it. The author of the pamphlet alluded to by Brewster, mentions it, but acknowledges his inability to account for it. Yet it is obviously from such prominent discrepancies or incongruities as this that deductions are to be made (if made at all) which shall lead us to the truth.

The circumstance of the Automaton’s playing with his left hand cannot have connexion with the operations of the machine, considered merely as such. Any mechanical arrangement which would cause the figure to move, in any given manner, the left arm—could, if reversed, cause it to move, in the same manner, the right. But these principles cannot be extended to the human organization, wherein there is a marked and radical difference in the construction, and, at all events, in the powers, of the right and left arms. Reflecting upon this latter fact, we naturally refer the incongruity noticeable in the Chess-Player to this peculiarity in the human organization. If so, we must imagine some reversion—for the Chess-Player plays precisely as a man would not. These ideas, once entertained, are sufficient of themselves, to suggest the notion of a man in the interior. A few more imperceptible steps lead us, finally, to the result. The Automaton plays with his left arm, because under no other circumstances could the man within play with his right—a desideratum of course. Let us, for example, imagine the Automaton to play with his right arm. To reach the machinery which moves the arm, and which we have before explained to lie just beneath the shoulder, it would be necessary for the man within either to use his right arm in an exceedingly painful and awkward position, (viz. brought up close to his body and tightly compressed between his body and the side of the Automaton,) or else to use his left arm brought across his breast. In neither case could he act with the requisite ease or precision. On the contrary, the Automaton playing, as it actually does, with the left arm, all difficulties vanish. The right arm of the man within is brought across his breast, and his right fingers act, without any constraint, upon the machinery in the shoulder of the figure.

We do not believe that any reasonable objections can be urged against this solution of the Automaton Chess-Player.





Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce

“Are you serious?—do you really believe a machine thinks?”

I got no immediate reply; Moxon was apparently intent upon the coals in the grate, touching them deftly here and there with the fire-poker till they signified a sense of his attention by a brighter glow. For several weeks I had been observing in him a growing habit of delay in answering even the most trivial of commonplace questions. His air, however, was that of preoccupation rather than deliberation: one might have said that he had “something on his mind.”

Presently he said:

“What is a ‘machine’? The word has been variously defined. Here is one definition from a popular dictionary: ‘Any instrument or organization by which power is applied and made effective, or a desired effect produced.’ Well, then, is not a man a machine? And you will admit that he thinks—or thinks he thinks.”

“If you do not wish to answer my question,” I said, rather testily, “why not say so?—all that you say is mere evasion. You know well enough that when I say ‘machine’ I do not mean a man, but something that man has made and controls.”

“When it does not control him,” he said, rising abruptly and looking out of a window, whence nothing was visible in the blackness of a stormy night. A moment later he turned about and with a smile said:

“I beg your pardon; I had no thought of evasion. I considered the dictionary man’s unconscious testimony suggestive and worth something in the discussion. I can give your question a direct answer easily enough: I do believe that a machine thinks about the work that it is doing.”

That was direct enough, certainly. It was not altogether pleasing, for it tended to confirm a sad suspicion that Moxon’s devotion to study and work in his machine-shop had not been good from him. I knew, for one thing, that he suffered from insomnia, and that is no light affliction. Had it affected his mind? His reply to my question seemed to me then evidence that it had; perhaps I should think differently about it now. I was younger then, and among the blessings that are not denied to youth is ignorance. Incited by that great stimulant to controversy, I said:

“And what, pray, does it think with—in the absence of a brain?”

The reply, coming with less than his customary delay, took his favorite form of counter-interrogation:

“With what does a plant think—in the absence of a brain?”

“Ah, plants also belong to the philosopher class! I should be pleased to know some of their conclusions; you may omit the premises.”

“Perhaps,” he replied, apparently unaffected by my foolish irony, “you may be able to infer their convictions from their acts. I will spare you the familiar examples of the sensitive mimosa and those insectivorous flowers and those whose stamens bend down and shake their pollen upon the entering bee in order that he may fertilize their distant mates. But observe this. In an open spot in my garden I planted a climbing vine. When it was barely above the surface I set a stake into the soil a yard away. The vine at once made for it, but as it was about to reach it after several days I removed it a few feet. The vine at once altered its course, making an acute angle, and again made for the stake. This manoeuver was repeated several times, but finally, as if discouraged, the vine abandoned the pursuit and ignoring further attempts to divert it traveled to a small tree, further away, which it climbed.

“Roots of the eucalyptus will prolong themselves incredibly in search of moisture. A well-known horticulturist relates that one entered an old drain-pipe and followed it until it came to a break, where a section of the pipe had been removed to make way for a stone wall that had been built across its course. The root left the drain and followed the wall until it found an opening where a stone had fallen out. It crept through and following the other side of the wall back to the drain, entered the unexplored part and resumed its journey.”

“And all this?”

“Can you miss the significance of it? It shows the consciousness of plants. It proves they think.”

“Even if it did—what then? We were speaking, not of plants, but of machines. They may be composed partly of wood— wood that has no longer vitality—or wholly of metal. Is thought an attribute also of the mineral kingdom?”

“How else do you explain the phenomena, for example, of crystallization?”

“I do not explain them.”

“Because you cannot without affirming what you wish to deny, namely, intelligent cooperation among the constituent elements of the crystals. When soldiers form lines, or hollow squares, you call it reason. When wild geese in flight take the form of a letter V you say instinct. When the homogenous atoms of a mineral, moving freely in solution, arrange themselves into shapes mathematically perfect, or particles of frozen moisture into the symmetrical and beautiful forms of snowflakes, you have nothing to say. You have not even invented a name to conceal your heroic unreason.”

Moxon was speaking with unusual animation and earnestness. As he paused I heard in an adjoining room known to me as his “machine-shop,” which no one but himself was permitted to enter, a singular thumping sound, as of some one pounding upon a table with an open hand. Moxon heard it at the same moment and, visibly agitated, rose and hurriedly passed into the room whence it came. I thought it odd that any one else should be in there, and my interest in my friend—with doubtless a touch of unwarrantable curiosity—led me to listen intently, though, I am happy to say, not at the keyhole. There were confused sounds, as of a struggle or scuffle; the floor shook. I distinctly heard hard breathing and a hoarse whisper which said “Damn you!” Then all was silent, and presently Moxon reappeared and said, with a rather sorry smile:

“Pardon me for leaving you so abruptly, I have a machine in there that lost its temper and cut up rough.”

Fixing my eyes steadily upon his left cheek, which was traversed by four parallel excoriations showing blood, I said:

“How would it do to trim its nails?”

I could have spared myself the jest; he gave it no attention, but seated himself in the chair that he had left and resumed the interrupted monologue as if nothing had occurred:

“Doubtless you do not hold with those (I need not name them to a man of your reading) who have taught that all matter is sentient, that every atom is a living, feeling, conscious being. I do. There is no such thing as dead, inert matter: it is all alive; all instinct with force, actual and potential; all sensitive to the same forces in its environment and susceptible to the contagion of higher and subtler ones residing in such superior organisms as it may be brought into relationship with, as those of man when he is fashioning it into an instrument of his will. It absorbs something of his intelligence and purpose —more of them in proportion to the complexity of the resulting machine and that of his work.

“Do you happen to recall Herbert Spencer’s definition of ‘Life’? I read it thirty years ago. He may have altered it afterward, for anything I know, but in all that time I have been unable to think of a single word that could profitably be changed or added or removed. It seems to me not only the best definition, but the only possible one.

“‘Life,’ he says, ‘is a definite combination of heterogeneous changes, both simultaneous and successive, in correspondence with external coexistences and sequences.'”

“That defines the phenomenon,” I said, “but gives no hint of its cause.”

“That,” he replied, “is all that any definition can do. As Mill points out, we know nothing of effect except as a consequent. Of certain phenomena, one never occurs without the other, which is dissimilar: the first in point of time we call the cause, the second, the effect. One who had many times seen a rabbit pursued by a dog, and had never seen rabbits and dogs otherwise, would think the rabbit the cause of the dog.

“But I fear,” he added, laughing naturally enough, “that my rabbit is leading me a long way from the track of my legitimate quarry: I’m indulging in the pleasure of the chase for its own sake. What I want you to observe is that in Herbert Spenser’s definition of ‘life’ the activity of a machine is included—there is nothing in the definition that is not applicable to it. According to this sharpest of observers and deepest of thinkers, if a man during his period of activity is alive, so is a machine when in operation. As an inventor and constructor of machines I know that to be true.”

Moxon was silent for a long time, gazing absently into the fire. It was growing late and I thought it time to be going, but somehow I did not like the notion of leaving him in that isolated house, all alone except for the presence of some person whose nature my conjectures could go no further than that it was unfriendly, perhaps malign. Leaning toward him and looking earnestly into his eyes while making a motion with my hand through the door of his workshop, I said:

“Moxon, whom do you have in there?”

Somewhat to my surprise he laughed lightly and answered without hesitation:

“Nobody; the incident that you have in mind was caused by my folly in leaving a machine in action with nothing to act upon, while I undertook the interminable task of enlightening your understanding. Do you happen to know that Consciousness is the creature of Rhythm?”

“O bother them both!” I replied, rising and laying hold of my overcoat. “I’m going to wish you good night; and I’ll add the hope that the machine which you inadvertently left in action will have her gloves on the next time you think it needful to stop her.”

Without waiting to observe the effect of my shot I left the house.

Rain was falling, and the darkness was intense. In the sky beyond the crest of a hill toward which I groped my way along precarious plank sidewalks and across miry, unpaved streets I could see the faint glow of the city’s lights, but behind me nothing was visible but a single window of Moxon’s house. It glowed with what seemed to me a mysterious and fateful meaning. I knew it was an uncurtained aperture in my friend’s “machine- shop,” and I had little doubt that he had resumed the studies interrupted by his duties as my instructor in mechanical consciousness and the fatherhood of Rhythm. Odd, and in some degree humorous, as his convictions seemed to me at that time, I could not wholly divest myself of the feeling that they had some tragic relation to his life and character—perhaps to his destiny—although I no longer entertained the notion that they were the vagaries of a disordered mind. Whatever might be thought of his views, his exposition of them was too logical for that. Over and over, his last words came back to me: “Consciousness is the creature of Rhythm.” Bald and terse as the statement was, I now found it infinitely alluring. At each recurrence it broadened in meaning and deepened in suggestion. Why, here (I thought) is something upon which to found a philosophy. If consciousness is the product of rhythm all things are conscious, for all have motion, and all motion is rhythmic. I wondered if Moxon knew the significance and breadth of his thought—the scope of this momentous generalization; or had he arrived at his philosophic faith by the tortuous and uncertain road of observation?

That faith was then new to me, and all Moxon’s expounding had failed to make me a convert; but now it seemed as if a great light shone about me, like that which fell upon Saul of Tarsus; and out there in the storm and darkness and solitude I experienced what Lewes calls “The endless variety and excitement of philosophic thought.” I exulted in a new sense of knowledge, a new pride of reason. My feet seemed hardly to touch the earth; it was as if I were uplifted and borne through the air by invisible wings.

Yielding to an impulse to seek further light from him whom I now recognized as my master and guide, I had unconsciously turned about, and almost before I was aware of having done so found myself again at Moxon’s door. I was drenched with rain, but felt no discomfort. Unable in my excitement to find the doorbell I instinctively tried the knob. It turned and, entering, I mounted the stairs to the room that I had so recently left. All was dark and silent; Moxon, as I had supposed, was in the adjoining room—the “machine shop.” Groping along the wall until I found the communicating door I knocked loudly several times, but got no response, which I attributed to the uproar outside, for the wind was blowing a gale and dashing the rain against the thin walls in sheets. The drumming upon the shingle roof spanning the unceiled room was loud and incessant.

I had never been invited into the machine-shop—had, indeed, been denied admittance, as had all others, with one exception, a skilled metal worker, of whom no one knew anything except that his name was Haley and his habit silence. But in my spiritual exaltation, discretion and civility were alike forgotten and I opened the door. What I saw took all philosophical speculation out of me in short order.

Moxon sat facing me at the farther side of a small table upon which a single candle made all the light that was in the room. Opposite him, his back toward me, sat another person. On the table between the two was a chessboard; the men were playing. I knew little about chess, but as only a few pieces were on the board it was obvious that the game was near its close. Moxon was intensely interested—not so much, it seemed to me, in the game as in his antagonist, upon whom he had fixed so intent a look that, standing though I did directly in the line of his vision, I was altogether unobserved. His face was ghastly white, and his eyes glittered like diamonds. Of his antagonist I had only a back view, but that was sufficient; I should not have cared to see his face.

He was apparently not more than five feet in height, with proportions suggesting those of a gorilla—tremendous breadth of shoulders, thick, short neck and broad, squat head, which had a tangled growth of black hair and was topped by a crimson fez. A tunic of the same color, belted tightly to the waist, reached the seat—apparently a box—upon which he sat; his legs and feet were not seen. His left forearm appeared to rest in his lap; he moved his pieces with his right hand, which seemed disproportionately long.

I had shrunk back and now stood a little to one side of the doorway and in shadow. If Moxon had looked farther than the face of his opponent he could have observed nothing now, excepting that the door was open. Something forbade me either to enter or retire, a feeling—I know not how it came—that I was in the presence of imminent tragedy and might serve my friend by remaining. With a scarcely conscious rebellion against the indelicacy of the act I remained.

The play was rapid. Moxon hardly glanced at the board before making his moves, and to my unskilled eye seemed to move the piece most convenient to his hand, his motions in doing so being quick, nervous and lacking in precision. The response of his antagonist, while equally prompt in the inception, was made with a slow, uniform, mechanical and, I thought, somewhat theatrical movement of the arm, that was a sore trial to my patience. There was something unearthly about it all, and I caught myself shuddering. But I was wet and cold.

Two or three times after moving a piece the stranger slightly inclined his head, and each time I observed that Moxon shifted his king. All at once the thought came to me that the man was dumb. And then that he was a machine—an automaton chessplayer! Then I remembered that Moxon had once spoken to me of having invented such a piece of mechanism, though I did not understand that it had actually been constructed. Was all his talk about the consciousness and intelligence of machines merely a prelude to eventual exhibition of this device—only a trick to intensify the effect of its mechanical action upon me in my ignorance of its secret?

A fine end, this, of all my intellectual transports—my “endless variety and excitement of philosophic thought!” I was about to retire in disgust when something occurred to hold my curiosity. I observed a shrug of the thing’s great shoulders, as if it were irritated: and so natural was this—so entirely human—that in my new view of the matter it startled me. Nor was that all, for a moment later it struck the table sharply with its clenched hand. At that gesture Moxon seemed even more startled than I: he pushed his chair a little backward, as in alarm.

Presently Moxon, whose play it was, raised his hand high above the board, pounced upon one of his pieces like a sparrowhawk and with an exclamation “checkmate!” rose quickly to his feet and stepped behind his chair. The automaton sat motionless.

The wind had now gone down, but I heard, at lessening intervals and progressively louder, the rumble and roll of thunder. In the pauses between I now became conscious of a low humming or buzzing which, like the thunder, grew momentarily louder and more distinct. It seemed to come from the body of the automaton, and was unmistakably a whirring of wheels. It gave me the impression of a disordered mechanism which had escaped the repressive and regulating action of some controlling part—an effect such as might be expected if a pawl should be jostled from the teeth of a ratchet-wheel. But before I had time for much conjecture as to its nature my attention was taken by the strange motions of the automaton itself. A slight but continuous convulsion appeared to have possession of it. In body and head it shook like a man with palsy or an ague chill, and the motion augmented every moment until the entire figure was in violent agitation. Suddenly it sprang to its feet and with a movement almost too quick for the eye to follow shot forward across table and chair, with both arms thrust forward to their full length—the posture and lunge of a diver. Moxon tried to throw himself backward out of reach, but he was too late: I saw the horrible thing’s hands close upon his throat, his own clutch its wrists. Then the table was overturned, the candle thrown to the floor and extinguished, and all was black dark. But the noise of the struggle was dreadfully distinct, and most terrible of all were the raucous, squawking sounds made by the strangled man’s efforts to breathe. Guided by the infernal hubbub, I sprang to the rescue of my friend, but had hardly taken a stride in the darkness when the whole room blazed with a blinding white light that burned into my brain and heart and memory a vivid picture of the combatants on the floor, Moxon underneath, his throat still in the clutch of those iron hands, his head forced backward, his eyes protruding, his mouth wide open and his tongue thrust out; and—horrible contrast!— upon the painted face of the assassin an expression of tranquil and profound thought, as in the solution of a problem in chess! This I observed, then all was blackness and silence.

Three days later I recovered consciousness in a hospital. As the memory of that tragic night slowly evolved in my ailing brain I recognized in my attendant Moxon’s confidential workman, Haley. Responding to a look he approached, smiling.

“Tell me about it,” I managed to say, faintly—”all about it.”

“Certainly,” he said; “you were carried unconscious from a burning house—Moxon’s. Nobody knows how you came to be there. You may have to do a little explaining. The origin of the fire is a bit mysterious, too. My own notion is that the house was struck by lightning.”

“And Moxon?”

“Buried yesterday—what was left of him.”

Apparently this reticent person could unfold himself on occasion. When imparting shocking intelligence to the sick he was affable enough. After some moments of the keenest mental suffering I ventured to ask another question:

“Who rescued me?”

“Well, if that interests you—I did.”

“Thank you, Mr. Haley, and may God bless you for it. Did you rescue, also, that charming product of your skill, the automaton chess-player that murdered its inventor?”

The man was silent a long time, looking away from me. Presently he turned and gravely said:

“Do you know that?”

“I do,” I replied; “I saw it done.”

That was many years ago. If asked today I should answer less confidently.

see also related Facsimile Books from same period…



About RAM Chandrakausika राम च 51

Ram51 is a researcher in the various fields of Musicology, Philosophy and History as well as old languages. One of his first topics is the wide scope of Indo-arabic cultures as represented in various art-forms religion and history. Below a list of selected Research topics which sum up partitionally the task of anthropological Frameworks in totaliter : Sanskrit Hinduism and Mythology Hindustani Music, The Muqhal Empire Gharanas from North India Kashmir Sufiyana The Kashmir Santoor Traditional Folk Music from USA Philosophy in Orient and Okzident Genealogy of musical instruments Ethnomusicology, Arabic Maqams, No Theatre fromJapan, North american poetry, Cultural heritage of mankind and Islamic architecture... View all posts by RAM Chandrakausika राम च 51

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