The reconstruction of the HNF’s Chess Turk

Its first public demonstration at the HNF attracted large crowds of visitors.
Its first public demonstration at the HNF attracted large crowds of visitors.

There were no construction plans, no precise descriptions. The reconstruction of the Chess Turk which burned in 1854 demanded research and a great deal of mechanical talent. HNF curator Dr. Stefan Stein had the idea of bringing the Chess Turk back to life, and uncovered the sources that were subsequently used by HNF restorer Bernhard Fromme to reconstruct the device. The work took about a year and a half, during which the reconstruction of the Chess Turk was merely one project among many for those who worked on it.

The only replica in Europe

The HNF’s Chess Turk is the only completely functional copy in Europe. There is reported to be another in Los Angeles, but more is not known about its functionality.

Since there were no concrete descriptions, Bernhard Fromme experimented, using his knowledge of mechanics, to determine how the Chess Turk is able to grasp. The solution was a pantograph (a “stork’s bill”) which uses lever mechanics to communicate the movements of the player inside the device to the arm of the Chess Turk – a technique von Kempelen also must have used.

Magnets and pins 

Another crucial problem was to communicate the moves of the Chess Turk’s opponent to the player inside the Chess Turk. This hidden player follows the course of the game with the help of magnets in the chess figures and small pins on the underside of the chess board – a solution like the one von Kempelen relied on.
 
All of the reconstruction work and the associated mechanics took place in the workshops of the Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum. Only the woodworking was performed externally by a local joiner’s shop, Tischlerei Wippermann. A costumer sewed the Chess Turk’s costume, and a properties mistress recreated his face from historic models. The housing at which the figure sits has the following dimensions in centimeters: 150w x 95h x 90d. The Turk itself is life-sized. 

Forerunner of chess computers  

The Chess Turk’s new home is the HNF’s permanent exhibition, where he can be found with the other early automated devices. Before that, however, he’ll spend a few weeks in the foyer as an outstanding new exhibit.

This machine anticipates some of the topics which play a role in the new exhibit areas of the HNF. As early as his own time, the Chess Turk provoked discussions on artificial intelligence. Can a machine be more intelligent than human beings? Similar questions arise today in view of the progress made in informatics and robotics, and so the Chess Turk takes his place in the museum’s presentations on artificial intelligence and robotics. He can also be regarded as a forerunner of the chess computers which can be seen in the newly-designed second floor of the HNF.