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”.

Enigma revealed

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.

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28 Comments

Rhain · January 28, 2020 at 10:56 AM

Wow. 

What an interesting read. This intriguing post has placed so many thoughts in my head. I had no idea Amazon’s Mturk was inspired by true events. It is indeed, amazing how Kempelen could fool the world for decades. What is even more surprising is the fact that this “undefeated chess player” actually bested Napoleon Bonaparte. Well, this just goes to show that no matter how much computers advance, humans would always have an edge. 

Great story.

    Henry · January 28, 2020 at 4:13 PM

    Hi Rhain. Yeah, I’m impressed how Kempelen could fool the world for decades. And there were quite a few brilliant minds intrigued and not being able to explain what was taking place.

    Thank you for your comment.

Sam · January 28, 2020 at 10:59 AM

I find your description and the topic quite fun!  I’m sure there where many inventions at the time where people used “interesting” means to demonstrate that their machines worked.

What I find more interesting is the reversal of roles we experience right now.  With the amount of computer generated news articles, and fake news abounding, its as if the tables have been turned.  Now the article is written by the machine, and all attempts are made to create the impression that it is a real human who did it.  We don’t want to believe that we’re actually so gullible that a machine (calculated) opinion satisfies our needs.

Love the angle!

    Henry · January 28, 2020 at 11:42 PM

    Hi Sam. Thank you very much for bringing this to the table. Yes, it truly seems a reversal. And it’s an interesting approach to what we consider satisfying and what not, based on the context. Back in those days, it was exotic to have a machine fully doing all calculations. Now, it’s the opposite.

Hollie Rose · January 28, 2020 at 11:09 AM

I never knew this story of the Mechanical Turk, really fascinating! To think that people really believed it was an actual machine is also pretty interesting. Unless it is magic, there is no way a robot will ever be cleverer than a human. I am very sceptical in general so I wouldn’t have bought that there was no man involved!

    Henry · January 28, 2020 at 11:47 PM

    Hi Hollie. Edgar Allan Poe had that approach. He wrote back in his days that there certainly must be some human involved, but the explanation he gave of how that human was involved was incorrect. It’s truly interesting who nobody detected in all those 84 years how the “system” worked.

    Thank you for your comment.

Joanie · January 28, 2020 at 11:20 AM

This is an interesting article, and I didn’t really think there was a live human inside until you revealed it at the end of this post.

In today’s time frame, with artificial intelligence becoming more and more prevalent, having a ‘Mechanical Turk’ wouldn’t be quite so unusual, but of course, would still be very entertaining to watch. I can’t even begin to imagine how the artificial intelligence would have to be “programmed” to react to hundreds, maybe thousands of scenarios. In fact, I get mesmerized just seeing a good chess player continually win because there seems to be such a science behind it.

You can tell I don’t play chess, but the game has always fascinated me. Thanks for sharing!

    Henry · February 23, 2020 at 1:20 AM

    Hi Joanie.

    Yes, I have also thought in that: what would cause astonishment back then would not be such a surprise nowadays. In fact, there is a tendency of businesses starting to use bots and a lot of people would still prefer interacting with another human-being.

MrBiizy · January 28, 2020 at 11:37 AM

Hi Henry. Interesting to see that this secret was kept for 84 years and totally intrigued those that lived in that day. It even intriegued me as I read your post. Exactly same as the story of the Elves! Our intelligence was played around with as we did the kids in Christmas.

I had a nice time reading through. Thank you for sharing.

    Henry · January 28, 2020 at 11:56 PM

    Hi! Yeah it’s interesting how so many were fooled, as kids. I look at some of the things we see today and wonder if were in occasions fooled too.

Stratos K · January 28, 2020 at 11:52 AM

I think that in general we are scared of artificial intelligence outsmarting us. No one has forgot the reaction of the world when Deep Blue was able to defeat the undisputed chess champion Kasparov. And even if that win is questionable even today the thought that a machine can be more capable than a human will certainly create a certain degree of fear as that is the moment that we loose our superiority over all other species on this planet.

    Henry · January 28, 2020 at 11:59 PM

    Yes. There is fear in having that outcome. But, it seems were heading in that direction. Who knows what the near future has enstored concerning machines in our daily lives.

Travis · January 30, 2020 at 4:49 PM

That is a very interesting story, I’ll bet the Austrians were shocked! Although hasn’t there now been a computer program that can beat the top chess masters in the world? I do find it amusing that Kempelen named his device after the people that had besieged their empire. Maybe another way to distract the Austrians so that they were not focusing completely on figuring out how this cabinet was able to beat humans at chess. I appreciate you sharing this, I like reading about such stories.

    Henry · January 30, 2020 at 5:41 PM

    Hi Travis.

    Yes, I believe that Kempelen intentionally named his invention “The Turk” to intimidate people at the court. But he never realized that hoax would make him tour Europe and that in the following years, those that owned the Turk after him would even go to las Americas.

Nate Stone · January 30, 2020 at 4:54 PM

Hi Henry,

Using an Ottoman as the frontage of the machine in itself is genius. As given the politics of the time, this would have likely unnerved a lot of people & probably led to them not investigating the “machine” properly.

It’s a very clever trick & i guess as the legend grew over the decades, the more people believed that it was some kind of unbeatable machine & if all these great minds believe it to be an unbeatable machine then it must be true & there is no reason to doubt it!

It reminds me a little bit of the film the “Prestige”, I guess this may be what that film is based on.

    Henry · January 30, 2020 at 9:00 PM

    Hi Nate! Yeah, there are several interesting elements in the fact of the Mechanical Turk becoming popular. And there are these social elements that even today are worth studying.

Jon · January 30, 2020 at 4:55 PM

I love reading stories like this. Always been a fan of illusionists. I knew while I was reading the post that there was some trick to it but couldn’t put my finger on it. I wish I could figure out half the illusions today.

This post kept me interested, from beginning to end. I hope to read more posts in the future about such topics.

    Henry · January 30, 2020 at 9:53 PM

    Hi! I’m glad you enjoyed this post. Yes, this type of historic event may serve as basis for future hoaxes. Hope none of us is deceived by them. 

jacobchivers · January 30, 2020 at 5:01 PM

I have used Amazon’s MTurk. But I didn’t know the name came from this Mechanical Turk, first presented in Austria in 1770. It’s an interesting story. I think Kempelen even wanted to discourage people from making the Turk popular because it wasn’t his original intention to tour Europe with the device. But things simply turned out that way.

    Henry · January 30, 2020 at 10:09 PM

    Yeah, Jacob. I agree with you. He wanted to impress people at the court and he ended up stunning all Europe.

Leon · January 31, 2020 at 1:10 PM

This is was an interesting read. A lot of people must have been fooled by this mysterious invention. They thought that it operated on its own but not knowing that it was designed in a way to allow a human to be in control. But still it’s a brilliant creation. 

What surprised me more was the array of ideas and inventions that were inspired by it. Like in the case of Graham Bell that invented the telephone. I’m surprised he got his idea from the Turk. 

I think the Turk truly affected the world in a positive way. 

Thank you for this article.

    Henry · January 31, 2020 at 1:34 PM

    Hi Leon! Thanks for sharing your thoughts concerning the Turk. Yes, I was also surprised how many genuine inventions sprung out of a hoax. Interesting study.

Julius · February 7, 2020 at 7:52 PM

Very interesting story. Honestly I haven’t heard about Mturk from Amazon, neither of the mechanical turk you talked in your story, but it is very nicely written. I checked the present mturk and it is very helpful tool, so thank you very much for presenting me this tool, in this “historical” fashion.

In general, there are elements in the business world which are rooted in history. And people can get understand better about today’s world (as I did in this case) looking into the past. 

Very clever, thank you for sharing with us!

    Henry · February 7, 2020 at 8:18 PM

    Hi Julius. I’m glad you liked this post. Yes, there are a lot of things that we use today that have been inspired by historical events. And the mechanical turk is one of those interesting ones.

Mark · February 7, 2020 at 8:03 PM

Henry, I admire your ability of storytelling. I would surmise that you spent many hours to recreate this story. And, I can only assume that it is true. There is no way that I could have the time to verify it.

You weaved my attention to the ultimate end, Bravo! I hope this site proves well for you. Peace, Mark.

    Henry · February 7, 2020 at 8:13 PM

    Hi Mark. Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Yes, it took several hours researching and it agrees with what you would find in books and articles. All the best to you too!

Evagreene · February 7, 2020 at 8:09 PM

This was fun to read. I think Kempelen deserves a medal 🏅 for fooling the world for 84-years. I was also intrigued reading the article. No doubt, humans will always have an edge over technology no matter how advance they become.

Henry, thank you very much for sharing. I’ll share this with a couple of friends that will also enjoy this post.

    Henry · February 7, 2020 at 8:23 PM

    Hey. Thank you for stopping by and you’re welcome.

    It was interesting that so many saw the turk but none could decipher the enigma during it’s life-time.

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