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The Turk

The Turk was a famous chess-playing automaton first constructed and unveiled in 1769 by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804), also known as Kempelen Fargas (or Farkas). It had the appearance of a maplewood cabinet 4 feet long by 2 feet deep and 3 feet high, with a mannequin dressed in cloak and turban seated behind it. The cabinet had doors that opened to reveal interal clockwork mechanisms, and when activated the mechanism appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent. However, the Turk was really a hoax; the cabinet was a cleverly constructed illusion that allowed a small man to hide inside and operate the mannequin.

Kempelen exhibited the Turk at the court of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa in 1770, and subsequently took it on a tour of Europe for several years. In 1776 von Kempelen took the Turk on a tour through Russia, and in 1783 the Turk was exhibited in Vienna for Emperor Joseph II. The Turk was then exhibited in Paris where Benjamin Franklin played it and lost. In 1785 in Prussia the Turk beat Frederick the Great in a game and in 1809 the Turk defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at Schonbrunn, during the Wagram campaign, checkmating in 24 moves.

After the death of Baron von Kempelen in 1804, the Turk passed through many hands. The secret of its operation was well-kept, however, and although many people suspected it was a hoax (in 1789 Joseph Friedrich built a duplicate Turk and wrote a book exposing how it worked, published in Dresden) the details were slow to trickle out and sufficient mystique remained for the Turk to continue his tours. In 1854, 85 years after its construction, the Turk was destroyed in the great Philadelphia fire. At least 15 chess experts and masters had operated the Turk over its history.

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