You’ve probably heard about Amazon’s platform called Mechanical Turk. In it, people are payed to complete tasks that computers can’t do. But why are the terms: Mechanical Turk, chess, machine and artificial intelligence related? To discover, continue reading this post.
Even in this time and age, with computer science booming and artificial intelligence on constant raise, companies as Amazon recognize that there are still simple tasks computers can’t do. So they created this platform back in 2005 and it’s still in business and very popular. To read more about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and even earn some money or Gift Cards with them, click here.
Where does Amazon’s Mechanical Turk name come from?
Back in the late 18th century, François Pelletier was performing an illusion act at the court of Maria Theresa of Austria in Schönbrunn Palace. Wolfgang von Kempelen was present. After the performance ended, Kempelen told Maria Theresa of Austria that he would bring an invention that would top the illusions.
About six months later Kempelen arrived at the court again. But this time with a cabinet that measured about three and a half feet (110 cm) long, two feet (60 cm) wide, and two and a half feet (75 cm) high. Hmm… not impressed, we could have said.
But on top of the cabinet there was a life-sized model of a human head and torso. It was wearing the traditional costumes of an oriental sorcerer with Ottoman robes and a turban. In its left arm it held a long Ottoman smoking pipe while at rest, and its right was placed on the top of the cabinet. The figure could move its arms, its head and even its eyes. It was quite intimidating. We picture Maria Theresa of Austria asking “Well Kempelen, what the heck is that?”
There was at that time in Austria, certain curiosity towards Turks, how they lived and how they dressed. But there was certain fear too. In the 18th century the Ottoman Turks were hostile to the Austrians and they fought many battles. But in 1683, the Ottoman Empire attempted to capture the city of Vienna. With the help of Polish hussars, at the final moment of the battle, the Austrians managed to defeat the Ottomans at the second siege of Vienna. But the incident greatly affected the Austrians and they viewed Turks with anxiety during the following decades.
“It’s an Automaton Chess-player, but I call him The Turk”, Kempelen smiled.
“It better be a good invention because all its done up to this point is frighten me” Maria Theresa of Austria answered a bit concerned.
Placed on the top of the cabinet was a chessboard. So this was Kempelen’s invention.
Kempelen addressed the audience of noblemen, scientists and upper echelons of Viennese society gathered to see his creation “Anyone who would like to challenge the Turk to a match, please step forward”.
Count Ludwig von Cobenzl, an Austrian courtier at the palace bravely came forward.
Before the match began, Kempelen explained the machine and its parts. In an act that would be repeated countless times over the years, he opened the doors and drawers of the cabinet, allowing members of the audience to inspect the machine. “No human inside”, he would say over and over again as he let them view the clockwork like interior of the machine.
Kempelen informed that the Turk would use the white pieces and have the first move. With an impressed audience, the Turk in fact stretched forth his hand and made its first move. I don’t know if the count was nervous, frightened, or both but the Turk quickly begun to crush him.
Less than half an hour after the match had begun, the Turk nodded twice and threatened Count Cobenzl’s queen. Few minutes later he nodded three times upon placing the king in check. The match ended shortly after with a victorious Turk.
No one could defeat the Turk that day. People were equally surprised and frightened. What was this? A sort of artificial intelligence? Others thought it was witchcraft. Kempelen had certainly delivered as he had promised, an invention that would top all the illusions previously seen by Maria Theresa of Austria.
The strong game of chess displayed by the Turk and its mysteriousness quickly spread through all Europe. There started to be demand to see the Turk in action. Kempelen, who was a respected gentleman and inventor, even tried to discourage the fame of the Turk from spreading. But for the next 84 years, the Turk enchanted Europe and the Americas, playing and defeating many challengers including statesmen such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. This chess-playing machine truly fooled the world! Nobody could explain exactly how it was done.
Kempelen died and the secret continued well kept. After his death, the device was purchased in 1804 and continued to be exhibited by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel. Mälzel added a feature in which, with the help of a voice box, the Turk would say ‘echec’ (French for “check”) every time he placed the king in check.
After Mälzel’s death, the Turk was left in the hands of a friend of Mälzel’s, the businessman John Ohl. After that, John Kearsley Mitchell from Philadelphia, Edgar Allan Poe’s personal physician and an admirer of the Turk, bought it. He restored it and continued occasionally giving performances. He finally donated it to the Chinese Museum. But on July 5th, 1854, a fire that started at the National Theater in Philadelphia reached the Museum and destroyed the Turk. Mitchell rushed to the Museum with the flames still blazing and he believed he heard “through the struggling flames … the last words of our departed friend, the sternly whispered, oft repeated syllables, ‘echec! echec!!'”
After the Turks destruction, Mitchell’s son, Dr. Silas Mitchell, decided to reveal the secret behind the 84-year-old chess player. He wrote that “no secret was ever kept as the Turk’s has been. Guessed at, in part, many times, no one of the several explanations … ever solved this amusing puzzle”. As the Turk was lost to fire he expressed that there was “no longer any reasons for concealing from the amateurs of chess, the solution to this ancient enigma”.
The Turk was nothing more than an elaborated hoax in which a man did sit inside the cabinet. This man would be a chess master. Various occupied this roll along the Turks life.
Even though before each presentation all the doors of the cabinet were opened and they exposed clockwork machinery and provided unobstructed view through the machine, the design allowed the presenter of the machine to open every available door to the public, to maintain the illusion, and still hide the man inside.
Neither the clockwork visible to the left side of the machine nor the drawer that housed the chess set extended fully to the rear of the cabinet; they instead went only one third of the way. A sliding seat was also installed, allowing the operator inside to slide from place to place and thus evade observation as the presenter opened various doors. The sliding of the seat caused dummy machinery to slide into its place to further conceal the person inside the cabinet.
Legacy and popular culture
During it’s years touring around Europe and las Americas, the Turk awakened the curiosity of many who tried to decipher the enigma. But nobody arrived to the correct answer of what really was happening.
Among those many that were impressed by its performance there were those who felt fueled by the intriguing chess-player and went on to create their own genuine inventions.
Edmund Cartwright went to see a Turk’s performance in London in 1784. He was so intrigued by the Turk that he would later question whether “it is more difficult to construct a machine that shall weave than one which shall make all the variety of moves required in that complicated game”. Cartwright would design the prototype for a power loom that same year and patented it the next year.
Sir Charles Wheatstone, another prolific inventor also went to one of the Turk’s appearances when it was owned by Mälzel. Mälzel later gave him a demonstration of the speaking machines he had built.
After this encounter with the chess-player, Wheatstone went and built his own imitation of the Turk. Alexander Graham Bell saw it and was inspired to obtained a copy of a book by Wolfgang von Kempelen on speaking machines. Bell went on to file the first successful patent for the telephone.
There are many more imitations and other inventions whose creators were inspired after seeing this hoax, but I won’t continue mentioning all of them. The Turk has also inspired works of literary fiction, and for the sake of this post, I’ll only mention two of them.
In 1849, just a few years before the Turk was destroyed, Edgar Allan Poe published a tale “Von Kempelen and His Discovery”.
In 2007, F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre publishes his story “The Clockwork Horror”. In it, he reconstructs Edgar Allan Poe’s original encounter with the Turk. Using contemporary advertisements in a Richmond newspaper, he establishes precisely when and where this encounter took place.
What are your thoughts concerning this enigmatic chess player?
I think it scared people just as much as it entertained them. The same thing would happen today if somebody turns out with a machine that can out think the greatest scientist around the world. People would be terrified at it!
What do you think? Please, I’d like to read your thoughts in the comment section bellow.