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Monday, January 09, 2006



We have reserved for a separate chapter the origin and history of this marvelous contrivance, which, at various periods during the lapse of ninety years, has astonished and delighted the scientific world in several cities of Europe and North America. Its machinery has been variously explained. It was constructed in 1769 by M. de Kempelen, a gentleman of Presburg, in Hungary, long distinguished for his skill in mechanics. The Chess-player is a life-sized figure, clothed in a Turkish dress, sitting behind a large chest, three and a half feet long, two feet deep, and two and a half feet high. The player sits on a chair fixed to the chest, and in the left he holds a pipe, which is removed during the game, as it is with this hand that he makes the moves. A chess-board, with the pieces, is placed before the figure. The exhibitor opens the doors of the chest, and shows the interior, with its cylinders, levers, wheels, pinions, and other pieces of machinery, which have the appearance of occupying the whole space. This machinery being wound up, the Automaton is ready to play; and when an opponent has been found, the figure takes the first move, moves its head, and seems to look over every part of the chess-board. When it gives check to its opponent it shakes its head thrice, and only twice when it checks the queen. It likewise shakes its head when a false move is made, replaces the adversary's piece on the square from which it was taken, and takes the next move itself. In general, though not always, the Automaton wins the game. During its progress, the exhibitor often stood near the machine, and wound it up like a clock after it had made ten or twelve moves. At other times he went to a corner of the room, as if it were to consult a small square box, which stood open for this purpose.

The earliest English account of the Automaton Chess-player that we can find is in a letter from the Rev. Mr. Dutens to the Gentleman's Magazine, dated Presburg, January 24, 1771. The writer formed an acquaintance with the inventor, whom he terms M. de Kempett (not Kempelen), an Aulic counselor, and director general of the salt mines in Hungary. Mr. Dutens played a game at chess with the Automaton at Presburg; the English ambassador, Prince Giustiniani, and several English lords, standing round the table.

"They all," according to Mr. Dutens, "had their eyes on M. de Kempett, who stood by the table, or sometimes removed five or six feet from it, yet not one of them could discover the least motion in him that could influence the Automaton..... He also withdraws to any distance you please, and lets the figure play four or five moves successively without approaching it. The marvelous in this Automaton consists chiefly in this, that it has not (as in others, the most celebrated machines of this sort) one determined set of movements, but that it always moves in consequence of the manner in which its opponent moves, which produces an amazing multitude of different combinations in its movements. M. de Kempett winds up from time to time the springs of the arms of this automaton, in order to renew its motive force; but this, you will observe, has no relation to its guiding force or power of direction, which makes the great merit of this machine. In general, I am of the opinion that the contriver influences the direction of almost every stroke played by the Automaton, although, as I have said, I have sometimes seen him leave it to itself for many moves together, which, in my opinion, is the most difficult circumstance of all to comprehend in what regards this machine."

Mr. Staunton, the celebrated chess-player, states that De Kempelen constructed the Automaton "merely to afford a passing amusement to the Empress Maria Teresa and her court." Upon its completion, it was exhibited at Presburg and Vienna; in 1783, in Paris; and in that and the following year in London and different parts of England, without the secret of its movements having been discovered. "It was subsequently," says Mr. Staunton, "taken, by special invitation of the emperor, to the court of Frederick the Great at Berlin. This prince was devotedly attached to chess; and in a moment of liberality, he proffered an enormous sum for the purchase of the Automaton and its secret. The offer was accepted, and in a private interview with De Kempelen, he was furnished with a key to the mystery. In a short time, however, Frederick threw aside the novelty so dearly bought, and for many years it lay forgotten and neglected among the lumber of his palace.

"M. Kempelen died in 1804; but in two years after, when Napoleon I. occupied Berlin, we find the Chess Automaton in the field again under a new master. On one occasion of its exhibition at this period, Napoleon himself is said to have entered the lists. After some half dozen moves, he purposely made a false move; the figure inclined its head, replaced the piece, and made a sign for Napoleon to play again. Presently he again played falsely: this time the Automaton removed the offending piece from the board, and played its own move. Napoleon was delighted; and, to put the patience of his taciturn opponent to a severer test, he once more played incorrectly, upon which the Automaton raised its arm, and, sweeping the pieces from the board, declined to continue the game."

To be continued...
Read part II
Read part III

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About the Author

This is from the book, "STORIES OF INVENTORS AND DISCOVERERS", by John Timbs (1860), which is in the public domain.

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