The original burned in Philadelphia 150 years ago – and on 25.03.2004, a reconstruction of the famous Chess Turk played its first game! The Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum in Paderborn presented the fully-faithful copy of the original to the public on the eve of the 200th birthday of its creator, Wolfgang von Kempelen.
Von Kempelen’s original demonstration of the Chess Turk took place in 1770 in Vienna for an audience that included the Austrian empress Maria Theresia. Thus began a tour through the palaces and salons of Europe and America which lasted over 70 years. The most famous automated device in the world created a sensation and aroused astonishment everywhere, and it played against numerous famous human contemporaries, including Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon and Edgar Allan Poe.
The functioning of this device was the subject of considerable and wide-ranging speculation during the 18th and 19th centuries. Had Kempelen really invented a genius machine that had the equivalent of human intelligence? Was it magnetic power or invisible strings that caused the Chess Turk to move? Or perhaps a dwarf or a child sat inside the device! Theories and suppositions filled articles and books, but the secret was not revealed until 1840.
Even if the magical aura surrounding the performance indeed relies on a trick, the Chess Turk was a masterful technical accomplishment of its time. Kempelen used complicated mechanics and magnetism to bring the Turk to life. The fascination of watching a machine appear to defeat a human being at chess, and the 70-year preservation of the secret of the Chess Turk’s real functioning made the machine into a myth. Even today, he is alive in the memories of many people.
The Chess Turk was the first to provoke the discussion whether the intellectual achievements of human beings could be exceeded by those of machines – a discussion that has become timely once again given today’s progress in robotics and artificial intelligence. That’s why the Chess Turk’s new home in the world’s largest computer museum is ideal. Here he can be found alongside other historic chess computers in the new exhibition areas which have been opened since the start of this year.