The Turk

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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. 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. 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.

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. 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.[2] Mitchell formed a restoration club and went about the business of repairing the Turk for public appearances, completing the restoration in 1840.

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. Mitchell believed he had heard "through the struggling flames ... the last words of our departed friend, the sternly whispered, oft repeated syllables, 'echec! echec!!'"

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. 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.

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