The World’s First Phony-Baloney Chess Robot

Image result for images of the turk chess automaton

In the spirit of April Fool, let me introduce you to the famous chess “automaton,” The Turk. ( )

Built in 1769, and destroyed in 1854 by a fire in a museum in Philadelphia, The Turk toured Europe, playing chess against some of the most famous people of that time and usually defeating them. The Turk wiped up the board with Napoleon–but I don’t think Napoleon was all that talented a chess player.

However much audiences marveled at the prowess of this primitive robot, they might’ve gotten just a bit cheesed off if they’d known The Turk’s secret. Inside the cabinet–half of which was filled with a lot of gears and flywheels that served no purpose other than to snow the audience–was a human chess player, usually a very good one, who directed the movements of The Turk’s chessmen. The Turk wasn’t really a robot at all!

Granted, compared to Global Warming, “The Russians stole the election from Hillary!”, or the claim that men can menstruate, The Turk was a very small and unambitious hoax, hardly noticeable. But in its day it was a most successful hoax, and some of the smartest people in Europe fell for it.

As they always do.

7 comments on “The World’s First Phony-Baloney Chess Robot

  1. Very clever 🙂 Sort of like the Trojan Horse – which, by the way, appears to be back and in good working order.

  2. The real marvel, it seems to me, was that guy inside the box who won all the chess games.

    1. It occurs to me: was there anybody around 1800 saying we ought to merge our human minds with the minds of chess automatons? So we could be sexier and funnier and not such patzers at chess?

  3. I’ve seen the same thing happen in politics; what you see is not exactly what is going on. Maybe there’s a person hiding out of sight, but directing the moves nonetheless.

  4. If I’m not mistaken, I think Edgar Allen Poe wrote an essay about the possibility of a man hiding within the workings of The Turk before the hoax was discovered. Anyone know about it?

    1. You’re not mistaken, Marge, but Poe was: he thought the human player was hiding inside the figure of the Turk. In fact, the human player hid inside the cabinet. Much easier than trying to squeeze someone into the interior of a mannikin!

    2. Thank you, Lee. Years ago I had read a bunch of Poe’s work just because I wanted to do so. Besides the creepy stories I also enjoyed reading his essays, his armchair detective stuff, and his poems.

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