Romantic Circles Gallery
The Chess Player


This print is taken from the final plate of the pamphlet, and depicts in eleven figures the proposed mechanism of the chess player. The figures do not represent a chronological progression, but rather depict various views of the mechanism, with particular emphasis on the positions that the concealed player may take within the machine. Fig. 1 presents the chess player as he would appear to the audience during the initial “reveal.” Fig. 2 shows the back of the player, along with the hidden door through which the counterfeit could enter after the front door was closed. In Figs. 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8, the hidden player first is shown by dotted lines and/or shadowing, and in Figs. 7 and 8 the player is shown moving the chess pieces within the body of the automaton. Fig. 6 shows a horizontal cross-section of the chest. Figs. 9, 10, and 11 all show a vertical cross section of the machine; fig. 11 shows the false back door raised. The letters label various doors and parts of the machine.

Accession Number: 

VRSX H62 Cutter

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This print is the final page to the pamphlet The History and analysis of the supposed automaton chess player of M. de Kempelen, now exhibiting in this country by Mr. Maelzel; with lithographic figures, illustrative of the probable method by which its motions are directed (Boston: Hilliard, Gray and Co., 1826). The author is sometimes listed as Gamaliel Bradford, but his name does not appear on the pamphlet.
The chess player was created by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1769 to amuse the court of Hapsburg empress, Maria Theresa. Known as “the Turk,” the spectacle delighted the empress and her visitors, and Kempelen was eventually persuaded to tour his creation in Europe and London in 1783-84.

After Von Kempelen died and Johann Maelzel took over its ownership in 1804, the chess player began its second life. As Mark Sussman notes, the chess player’s second round was an even more involved spectacle than the first:
Much more a showman than his predecessor, Maelzel surrounded the Chess Player with a touring assortment of mechanical curiosities that included an Automaton Trumpeter, Automaton Slack-Rope Dancers, and a moving panorama of the Conflagration of Moscow, all exhibits of his own creation. (87)
After several years of touring Europe, Maelzel brought the chess player to the U.S. in 1825 and toured New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, engaging Benjamin Franklin among others, and garnering and welcoming publicity of all kinds (Riskin 620). The 1826 pamphlet in which this print appears participates in the speculation and fascination with the chess player in 1820s and 30s antebellum America.

Altick describes the chess player’s spectacle in detail:
Behind a chest, four feet wide, two deep, and three high, sat a half-size figure of a man, turbaned and clad in the Turkish costume, suggestive of an Oriental sorcerer, that was the conventional garb of automaton magicians . . . Before he began a game with a human challenger, his exhibitor made an elaborate ritual of opening the doors of the three compartments into which the chest was divided and holding a candle at the back, to show that nothing was inside but a mass of clockwork machinery. The showman then wound up the machinery, which could be heard in operation as play progressed. During a game, the adversary was seated a chessboard a little distance away; each move he made was duplicated by the exhibitor on the Turk’s board laid atop the chest. The Turk responded by raising his left, turning his head and eyes from left to right, and then moving his own piece . . . And so the game went on, the Turk shaking his head and impatiently rapping his fingers on the board when his opponent made a false move, nodding his head three times when he checkmated the king. With periodic rewinding of the mechanism, a game might last as long as an hour. The automaton usually won, although once in a while an exceptionally good player would beat him. (68-9)
But the chess player was a hoax. As many viewers guessed, the chest hid a human player inside. The conflicting views about how the “real” chess player was concealed, however, helped generate rather than dispel public interest by turning it into a puzzle to be solved (Rice 14).
Numerous pamphlets and articles published in London, Boston, and Philadelphia sought to explain how the chess player worked.

The figures displayed here were taken directly from Robert Willis’s drawings for An Attempt to Analyse the Automaton Chess Player of M. de Kempelen (London, 1821). The theory is also Willis's own, though the text is not identical. Willis, a Cambridge undergraduate, argued that the chess player was, in fact, partially mechanized, but also depended on a concealed human actor. He sought to show how and where in his text and drawings. His text also provided the basis for David Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic Addressed to Sir Walter Scott (London, 1832).

M. Karl Gottlieb de Windisch’s Inanimate Reason; or a Circumstantial Account of that Astonishing Piece of Mechanism,M. de Kempelen's Chess-Player (London, 1784) includes an often-reproduced detailed engraving of the chess player.

Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “Maelzel’s Chess Player” appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger in April 1836 and closely followed Willis’s and Brewster’s theories of its concealed human operator. Poe’s main argument was that “only ‘determinate’ processes . . . could be mechanized”; therefore the chess player, who responded to an unpredictable set of events, could not be automated (Riskin 622).

Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” begins with a reference to the famous chess player:
The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table . . . Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called ‘historical materialism’ is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight. (253)
This print attempts to theorize and depict the inner workings of Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen's automated chess player, specifically emphasizing the probable presence and role of a human concealed within the machine.
The chess player is one of the most famous “automata” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Despite the fact that it was a hoax, it had a career of eighty-five years that spanned continents and centuries. References to it appear in the works of literary authors, newspapers, philosophical texts, and scientific or engineering texts, and it continues to fascinate contemporary scholars.

Kempelen himself never claimed that the chess player was authentic, as David Brewster acknowledged in his 1832 exposé:
Its ingenious inventor, who was a gentleman and a man of education, never pretended that the automaton itself really played the game. On the contrary, he distinctly stated, ‘that the machine was a bagatelle, which was not without merit in point of mechanism, but that the effect of it appeared so marvelous only from the boldness of the conception, and the fortunate choice of the methods adopted for promoting the illusion.’ (qtd. in Sussman 86)
Part mechanism, part illusion, the chess player capitalized on the culture of spectacle and mechanical wonder of late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century England and America. Both of its owners were also talented engineers who designed and created real automata, and who participated in the discourse concerning the relationship between the human mind and the mechanized machine that had been going on at least since Descartes (and still continues). Like Vaucauson’s duck, whose “central fraud was surrounded by plenty of genuine imitation,” the chess player garnered attention and was praised precisely for its display of the limits of mechanical mimesis (Riskin 609, 621). It is this hybridity and the “simultaneous enactment of both the sameness and incomparability of life and machinery” that Riskin finds unique to the period (610). Hankin and Silverman also call attention to the compatibility of “false” and “true” scientific demonstration in Kemeplen’s work as well as in that of other inventors and thinkers of the period (197).

Riskin, and to a greater extent Rice, also investigates the ways in which the limits of mechanic mimesis generated discourse; he further explores how, due to increasing industrialization, famous automata were bound up in economic and social changes (cf. Rice).

Finally, Kempelen’s decision to style his chess player as “the Turk,” replete with pipe and turban, reflects the exoticization of automata in the period as exaggerated Middle Eastern or East Asian types; furthermore, this "Turkish" depiction reflects the actual circulation and history of automata trade which this gallery seeks in part to consider (see Mr. Cox's Perpetual Motion, A Prize in the Museum Library in this gallery).
This pamphlet and illustration’s purpose is to explain the mystery of the chess player’s “mechanism” and its hidden operator.
Altick, Richard. The Shows of London. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP Belknap P, 1978. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. Print.

Carroll, C. M. The Great Chess Automaton. New York: Dover Publications, 1975. Print.

Hankins, Thomas and Robert Silverman. Instruments and the Imagination. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995. Print.

Rice, Stephen. “Making Way for the Machine: Maelzel’s Automaton Chess-Player and Antebellum American Culture.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Third Series, Vol. 106 (1994): 1-16. Print.

Riskin, Jessica. “The Defecating Duck, or, the Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life.” Critical Inquiry 29.4 (2003): 599-633. Print.

Stafford, Barbara Maria and Frances Terpak. Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2001. Print.

Sussman, Mark. “Performing the Intelligent Machine: Deception and Enchantment in the Life of the Automaton Chess Player.” Puppets, Masks, and Performing Objects. Spec. Issue of TDR 43.3 (1999). Print.

Willis, Robert. An Attempt to Analyse the Automaton Chess Player of M. de Kempelen. London, 1821. Print.

Wimsatt, W.K., Jr. “Poe and the Chess Automaton.” American Literature 11 (1939): 138-51. Print.
Gamaliel Bradford. The History and analysis of the supposed automaton chess player of M. de Kempelen, now exhibiting in this country by Mr. Maelzel; with lithographic figures, illustrative of the probable method by which its motions are directed. Boston: Hilliard, Gray and Co., 1826.