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Saturday, January 14, 2006

THE AUTOMATON CHESS-PLAYER (PART III)


Thus the explanation rested until the publication of the Memoirs of Robert Houdin, who therein relates the origin and construction of the Automaton Chess-player in substance as follows:

In 1769 there fell, fighting in a revolt at Riga, an officer named Worousky, a man of great talent and energy, of short stature, but well built. He had both thighs shattered by a cannon ball, but escaped by throwing himself into a hedge behind a ditch. At nightfall, Worousky dragged himself along, with great difficulty, to the adjacent house of Osloff, a physician, whose benevolence was well known; and the doctor, moved by his sufferings, attended upon and promised to conceal him. His wound was serious, gangrene set in, and his life could only be saved at the cost of half his body. The amputation was successful, and Worousky saved.

Meanwhile, M. de Kempelen, the celebrated mechanician, came to Riga to visit M. Osloff, who confided to him his secret of concealing Worousky, and begged his aid. Though startled at the request--for he knew that a reward was offered for the insurgent chief, and that the act of humanity he was about to assist in might send him to Siberia--still, M. de Kempelen, on seeing Worousky's mutilated body, felt moved with compassion, and began contriving some plan to secure his escape.

Dr. Osloff was a passionate lover of chess, and had played numerous games with his patient during his tardy convalescence; but Worousky was so strong at the game that the doctor was always defeated. Then Kempelen joined the doctor in trying to defeat the skillful player, but it was of no use; Worousky was always the conqueror. His superiority gave M. de Kempelen the idea of his famous Automaton Chess-player. In an instant his plan was formed, and he set to work immediately; and the most remarkable circumstance is, that this wonderful chef-d'oeuvre, which astonished the whole world, was finished within three months.

M. de Kempelen was anxious that his host should make the first trial of his Automaton; so he invited him to play a game on the 10th of October, 1769. The Automaton represented a Turk of the natural size, wearing the national costume, and seated behind a box of the shape of a chest of drawers. In the middle of the top of the box was a chess-board, with the pieces, for play.

Prior to commencing the game, the artist opened several doors in the chest, and M. Osloff could see inside a number of wheels, pulleys, cylinders, springs, etc., occupying the larger part. At the same time he opened a long drawer, from which he produced the chess-men and a cushion, on which the Turk was to rest his arm. This examination ended, the robe of the Automaton was raised, and the interior of the body could also be inspected.

The doors being then closed, M. de Kempelen wound up one of the wheels with a key which he inserted in a hole in the chest; after which the Turk, with a gentle nod of salutation, placed his hand on one of the pieces, raised it, deposited it on another square, and laid his arm on the cushion before him. The inventor had stated that, as the Automaton could not speak, it would signify check to the king by three nods, and to the queen by two.

The doctor moved in his turn, and waited patiently till his adversary, whose movements had all the dignity of the Sultan, had moved. The game, though slow at first, soon grew animated, and the doctor found he had to deal with a tremendous opponent; for, in spite of all his efforts to defeat the figure, the game was growing quite desperate. It is true, though, that for some minutes past the doctor's attention had appeared to be distracted, and one idea seemed to occupy him. But, while hesitating whether he should impart his thoughts to his friend, the figure gave three nods. The game was over.

"By Jove!" the loser said, with a tinge of vexation, which the sight of the inventor's smiling face soon dispelled, "if I were not certain that Worousky is at this moment in bed, I should believe I had been playing with him. His head alone is capable of inventing such a checkmate. And besides," the doctor said, looking fixedly at M. de Kempelen, "can you tell me why your Automaton plays with the left hand, just like Worousky?" (The Automaton Chess-player always used the left hand--a defect falsely attributed to the carelessness of the constructor.)

The mechanician began laughing, and at length confessed to his friend that he had really been playing with Worousky.

"But where the deuce have you put him, then?" the doctor said, looking round to try and discover his opponent.

The inventor laughed heartily.

"Well, do you not recognize me?" the Turk exclaimed, holding out his left hand to the doctor in reconciliation, while Kempelen raised the robe and displayed the poor cripple stowed away in the body of the Automaton.

M. Osloff could no longer keep his countenance, and he joined the others in the laughter. But he was the first to stop, for he wanted an explanation.

"But how do you manage to render Worousky invisible?"

M. de Kempelen then explained how he concealed the living automaton before it entered the Turk's body.

"See here," he said, opening the chest; "these wheels, pulleys and cranks, occupying a portion of the chest, are only a deception. The frames that support them are hung on hinges, and can be turned back to leave space for the player, while you were examining the body of the Automaton.

"When this inspection was ended, and as soon as the robe was allowed to fall, Worousky entered the Turk's body we have just examined, and, while I was showing you the box and machinery, he was taking his time to pass his arms and hands into those of the figure. You can understand that, owing to the size of the neck, which is hidden by the broad and enormous collar, he can easily pass his head into this mask, and see the chess-board. I must add, that when I pretend to wind up the machine, it is only to drown the sound of Worousky's movements."

M. Houdin relates that the mutilated Pole once had the audacity, in his clockwork case, to visit St. Petersburg, and play a game of chess with the Empress Catharine, against whom he had revolted.

It is hard to reconcile these conflicting statements, unless, having allowed Houdin's account of the origin of the Automaton to be correct, we consider the other narratives to explain the modes by which the Automaton was worked after Worousky had ceased to be the prime mover of this extraordinary deception.

Substitutes for the natural limbs have been constructed with great success. In 1845, Magendie described to the French Academy a pair of artificial arms, the invention of M. Van Petersen, with one of which a mutilated soldier raised a full glass to his mouth, and drank its contents without spilling a drop of the liquor; he also picked up a pin, a sheet of paper, etc. Each arm and hand, with its articulations, weighs less than a pound; and a sort of stays is fixed round the person, and from these are cords made of catgut, which act upon the articulations, according to the motion given to the natural stump.
Read part I
Read part II
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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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