Ghost In The Machine

by D.H.T. Shippey & Michael Burns

In 1783, Benjamin Franklin received a fascinating invitation. A mechanical genius by the name of Wolfgang von Kempelen had built a machine known as The Turk that challenged Dr. Franklin to a game of chess.

Franklin was in Paris as an American diplomat, and the machine (originally built in 1770) was giving demonstrations in the city as part of a European tour. Benjamin Franklin was not the first person of note to sit down at a game with the automata player, but it appears that he was the first American to do so. From reports of other games played by The Turk, we have a pretty fair idea of what Franklin encountered. It was a wooden cabinet, approximately 4 feet long, 2.5 feet deep, and 3 feet high, resting on four brass casters with sliding panels in front that could be opened to reveal the clockwork systems inside. On top of this cabinet was a chessboard and a carved wooden figure of a turbaned man with a long Turkish pipe.
Kempelen would begin the demonstration by exposing the working parts of the machine and established that there was no one inside. Then he would take a large key and wind up the device. Once engaged, the figure would come to life and begin the match. The Turk played white and so always made the first move. If you made an illegal move it would shake its head and even move the piece back to where it originated.

     Dr. Franklin was known to be an avid chess player and had even written on the subject. When he came to his match against The Turk, he knew the machine’s reputation. It had beaten some of the best players in Europe and had an impressive but not perfect record of winning. It was an aggressive player that usually defeated opponents within half an hour. As the game was played, Kempelen would occasionally make small adjustments to the mechanical parts on the figure, but nothing that could possibly affect the game. When it was all over, Franklin wrote that it was one of the most enjoyable games of chess he had ever played--a pleasant way of saying he lost. This would make Benjamin Franklin the first American to experience being defeated by a machine, something most Americans today could certainly relate to. Franklin, always the diplomat, was a gracious loser in spite of the fact that he suspected somehow the machine was an illusion and that someone was manipulating it. Even with all his belief in science and innovation, he just could not fathom how a machine might think.



       Of course Dr. Franklin was right; the machine was an illusion. Inside the cabinet a cleverly hidden chess master operated the machine from a seat that would roll on tracks and shift him from view.

The device, while a fraud, was still a work of genius in its design and movements that would inspire, intrigue and fascinate for years to come. It would be a focus of interest from the Georgian period through the Regency and into the Victorian Age. Another signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, would later play The Turk and defeat it.

Other famous opponents included Catherine the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte. Writer Edgar Allen Poe became fixated on the machine and in 1836 wrote an expose on how he believed it operated. The brilliant English mathematician Charles Babbage played two games against the Turk in 1821 and lost both.  He was sure that the machine was a hoax, but it gave him the idea of a mechanical  calculator. He eventually designed what he called an Analytic Engine that could be programmed to tic-tac-toe, checkers and chess based on an algorithm for playing games with moveable pieces. Likewise inspired by the idea that a machine might be constructed to play chess, Edmund Cartwright imagined that a machine could weave fabrics and built the first power loom.

In 1825, the Turk was brought to America, where it toured until it was eventually a forgotten relic in the Philadelphia Museum. Sadly the machine was destroyed when fire swept through the museum in 1854. Other inventors and illusionists have recreated The Turk as well as possible from the incomplete information we still have from the original. Like all of history, we can never actually know all the details we would care to. We read and compare the writings of those who witnessed it and participated in its story along with drawings and any surviving relics, but we never know for sure. Of course, in what may be the ultimate legacy of The Turk, we now feed that information into thinking machines called computers to help us better understand and process the data. Even now I’m typing these words and sending them to you through a machine that beats me at chess regularly. I think Ben Franklin would be amused.

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