Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Week 5.  Mechanism

excerpts from
The ... Automaton Chess-Player, Exposed and Detected
by Philipp Thicknesse (1719-1792)

[We know these to be nothing.]

I HOPE there are few Englishmen so illiberal, as to envy any man, of whatever nation he is born in, or whatever religion he professes, the just reward due to REAL merit or ingenuity; but when I see one Foreigner come among us, and call a Toy-shop Doll, "a Speaking Figure," and demand HALF A CROWN a piece [one crown = 5 shillings; one shilling = 12 pence] admittance, to hear it, and find within an hundred yards another Foreigner, who imposes double that sum, to see what he calls an AUTOMATON Chess-Player:* -- When I see such men, I say, collecting an immense sum of money in this Kingdom, to carry into some other, by mere tricks; tricks inferior to many slights of hand which are shewn for two-pence, my indignation rises at the folly of my own Countrymen, and the arrogance of the imposing strangers.  I therefore think it a piece of justice due to both, to draw aside the curtain, open the head, and shew, that the brains of this wonderful Doll is nothing more than the continuation of a tin tube, which is fixed to its mouth, so as to convey the Question and Answer to and from an invisible Confederate.  That the human voice may be imitated, and many, or most words, articulated by valves, and bellows, like the barrel organ, there is no doubt; but that a mechanical figure can be made to answer all, or any such questions which are put to it, or even put a question, is UTTERLY IMPOSSIBLE.

*AN AUTOMATON, is a self-moving Engine, with the principle of motion within itself.  The flying Dove of Archytas, [Greek mathematician and mechanician, Archytus of Tarentum (c.428-c.350 BCE), is credited, perhaps mistakenly, with creating a wooden bird that, when propelled by a jet of escaping steam, would "fly" along a wire from a low perch to a higher one] ... and Regiomontanus's Wooden Eagle [German astronomer, Johannes Müller of Königsberg (1436-1476), is reputed to have built a number of automata including a perpetual motion machine], which, as Historians relate, flew from the City, met the Emperor [Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I (1459-1519)], saluted him, and returned; and likewise the Iron Fly, which, at a feast, flew out of his hands, and taking a round, returned thither again ... were properly called AUTOMATA; but the modern Chess-Player is no such thing.

That an AUTOMATON may be made to move its hand, its head, and its eyes, in certain and regular motions, is past all doubt; but that an AUTOMATON can be made to move the Chessmen properly, as a sagacious Player, in consequence of the preceding move of a stranger, who undertakes to play against it, is also UTTERLY IMPOSSIBLE:  And, therefore, to call it AN AUTOMATON, is an imposition, and merits a public detection; especially as the high price of five shilling for each person's admission, induces the visitor to believe, that its movements are REALLY performed by mechanic powers; when, in fact, the whole delusion is supported in both instances, by invisible confederates.  To prove that it is so, is the business of this Publication, not with a view of depriving the Exhibitors of a reasonable profit, for their ingenuity; for ingenuity there is in the contrivance of both; but perhaps less, in the Chess-Player, than even in that of the Speaking Doll, which I shall first explain....

...[A]s to the Chess-Player, I think, when he is stript of his Turkish robes, turned out of his splendid apartment, deprived of the serious deportment of all the parties, and parade of admittance, is still a more simple trick, though better conducted than the Speaking Figure.  The Chess-Player, however, is a well executed figure of a Turk, sitting under a kind of tent, and behind a large Counter; a Counter which is opened before the game begins, and exhibits a complicated piece of clockwork, by which the spectator is given to understand, the movements are regulated; but which is nothing more, than one, of many other ingenious devices, to misguide and to delude the observers. 

Both figure and counter are railed off, and only one man attends within side; and he is supposed to be the person with whom the stranger actually plays, by causing the arm and hand of the Automaton to move the Chess-men by some incomprehensible and invisible powers, according to the preceding move of the stranger who plays against the Automaton; and that every spectator should think so, he always places himself close to the right elbow of the Automaton, previous to its move; then puts his left hand into his coat pocket, and by an aukward kind of motion, induces most people to believe, that he has a Magnet concealed in his pocket, by which he can direct the movement of the Turk's arm at pleasure.  Add to this, that he has a little cabinet on a side-table, which he now and then unlocks, and locks; a candle burning; and a key to wind up the AUTOMATON; all of which are merely to puzzle the spectators:  For he takes care that they shall see him move his hand and fingers in his pocket, backwards and forwards, on purpose to enforce the suspicion that he, not an invisible Agent, is the antagonist against whom you play; whereas, he is only a party in the deception; and the real mover is concealed in the Counter, which is quite large enough (exclusive of the clockwork)* to contain a child of ten, twelve, or fourteen years of age; and I have children who could play well at chess, at those ages.  The Confederate, therefore, may probably see the moves, by a looking-glass fixed to the ceiling; and has only to practise reading the game backwards, for by a Confederate IT IS PERFORMED.

*Were I to tell a Watch or Clock-maker to make me one or the other, which, at the word of command, would point its hour and minute hand at whatever part of the dial I directed, he would tell me, nothing but a living hand could so direct it; yet this pretended Automaton does more, for it points both as directed, and adds to it the human faculties, by playing with judgment, at a game which requires some, though not so much as is generally conceived.

That this is the case, is past all doubt; for they only exhibit the Automaton Player, from the hour of one till two o'clock, because the invisible Player, cannot bear a longer confinement; if he could, it cannot be supposed that they would not receive Crowns for admittance, from twelve o'clock till four, instead of only from one to two.  That the visible Attendant means you should consider him the actual Director of the game and Author of the moves, is clear; because, when I observed to him that he was a good Chess-Player, he instantly replied, la, la; so, so;  but I am confident he is not:  Nay, I have no doubt but it is a living hand which is put into the sleeve of the Turk, and that all the moves are made by that means.*  Indeed, Mons. Kemplin (who is certainly a very ingenious man) had the candour to say to a CERTAIN PRINCE, at Paris, who asked him the secret, " Quand vous le Scaurez, mon Prince, ce ne sara plus rien." [When you know it, it won't be a secret any more.]....

*I saw the ermine trimmings of the Turk's outer garment move once or twice, when the Figure should have been quite motionless; for it is the left arm alone which moves; and he is made to play left-handed, probably that it may appear right-handed to the accomplice in the looking-glass, above; though I rather think, the invisible player sees all the moves through the hair trimmings of the Turk's habit.


TO shew the utter impossibility that any part of the Chess-Playing Turk is performed by mechanical powers, and that every part is performed by a living, but invisible human confederate, let it be remembered, first, that the success of the game at Chess depends wholly on address, and cautious movements of the Chess-men, in various and undetermined moves, on a board, containing sixty-four squares, (or houses.)....

....It is therefore time to have done with all those Moving and Speaking Figures; and never to forget, that a drunken man is always acting the part of a sober one; and that he who pretends to be better and wiser than his neighbour, is in general, by all that so much the worse....

Man, the cunningest, the most artful, and the most ingenious of all animals, is always aiming to deceive, and to draw the attention of those who behold his movements, from that point at which he means most to deceive.

Look here, Ladies and Gentlemen, says the slight-of-hand-man?  Every body looks as he bids them; at his right hand, while his left, slips unobserved, the Guinea piggs into a bag....

So there is a good reason to believe, that Mons. Automaton's robes and hair trimmings do not meet so close as to prevent an interior man from seeing the Chess-Board, though he may not be seen himself.  For, as I observed above, I saw motion there, when the Figure ought to have been, and would have been motionless, had there not been some life very near it.  When the arm of the Automaton moves, all eyes are there; and therefore, the eyes of the concealed mover lies hid....


Go to:
Readings for Week
Lecture Notes for