The famous chess player, a false automaton created by the Baron von Kempelen - The website of automatons, automata and androids.

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(Introduction of the secret of the chess player automaton by Baron von Kempelen)

This extract is coming from the film "The Jaquet-Droz androids".
This film and many others about automatons and androids
are available in english version on our online shop.

In his illustrated history of conjuring, Max Dif tells about the most famous automaton : "The chess player, the most famous automaton, in fact was not an automaton. It used to be brought to life by a man who was hidden inside. It was designed and made in 1769 by Baron Von Kempelen, a gentleman from Presbourg, where it was exhibited before being shown in Vienna and Moscow.

The Baron Von Kempelen's chess player - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
The chess player, an automaton created
by the Baron von Kempelen
Flash animation

Several authors reported that Von Kempeler let a banned Polish officer escape from Russia : Worouski was amputated from both legs and so could be housed easily in a container of little dimension.

In reality, the chess player was largely higher than a normal man and the casing, which contained the complex and therefore useless mechanism, was a shelter which permitted to conceal easily a secret operator who could thus make the automaton move".

The great Catherine II of Russia began a game against the "iron Muslim", who was thus called since he was dressed like a Turk. Robert-Houdin tells about this episode in his famous "Revelations" :

Catherine II and the Baron Von Kempelen's chess player - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
The baron von Kempelen's false automaton

"… after the technician asked for it, the casing and the body of the Turk were visited, and once we were firmly convinced that it contained nothing but the wheels…, we got into the position to begin the game.

Favoured by fate, Catherine took advantage to play the first pawn ; the automaton shot back, and the game went

on in the deepest silence. At first, the pieces manoeuvred without nothing was decided upon. However and according to the Czarina's frowned eyebrows, it did not take a long time for the spectators to realize that the automaton did not behave very gentlemanly with her, and that, after all, he was worthy of the reputation we had done to him. She successively lost a knight and a bishop because of the Muslim who was a good chess player. From then on, the game went wrong for the noble player, until the Turk suddenly gave up his impassive solemnity : he banged his hand on the cushion, and put at its place a piece moved forward by his opponent .

Catherine II had just cheated. Was it to test the intelligence of the automaton or for any other reason? No clue could be given. Nevertheless, the proud empress refused to admit her weakness and put the piece back on the place on which she had fraudulently moved it forward. She looked at the automaton with authority and in an imperious manner.

The result occured immediately : the Turk, with a sudden movement, strongly knocked over all the pieces of the chessboard, and the noise of a wheel, which had been consistently

Von Kempelen's automaton and his secret operator - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
The turk and his secret operator
Flash animation

functioning during the game, immediately stopped. The machine stopped as if it was suddenly broken down.

Pale and shaking, Mister von Kempelen, thus recognizing Worouski's enthusiastic character, apprehensively waited for the outcome of this conflict between the banned man and the sovereign.

'Oh! Oh! Mister the automaton, you have quite abrupt manners', the empress said with

Baron von kempelen' turk - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
The secret of the automaton
created by the Baron von Kempelen
gaiety; she was not angry that the game finished here because she considered that she had few chances to succeed in this game. 'Oh! You are strong, I admit it; but you feared you might lose the game, and with caution you kept confusing it. Well, I am now enlightened about your learning, and above all, about your nervous manners.'

Mister von Kempelen started breathing and while he took fresh heart, he wanted to try and destroy forever the detrimental impression made by the lack of respect of his machine. Von Kempelen took on the whole responsibility of the machine's mistake.

'May her Majesty allow me to give her an explanation about what has just happened', he said humbly.

' Not at all, Mister Von Kempelen', the czarina joyfully interrupted, 'not at all. On the contrary, I find it very funny and I will even assure you that your automaton so pleases me that I want to purchase it. In that way, I will always have a player by my side, even though he is a bit too lively, but clever enough to stand up to me. Would you let him in this apartment and visit me tomorrow in the morning in order to strike the deal…"

Baron Von Kempelen was also the creator of real automatons, and more precisely the inventor of several "talking" machines. He explained how one of them operated in his work "Mechanismus der Menschlichen Sprache". After proceeding to the study of the mechanism of language in human beings, he describes the musical instruments; which are the most similar to the human voice : oboe, clarinet, bassoon and bagpipes, because "their reed, by its very functions, looks like the glottis".

The study of the mechanism of the human language by the Baron von Kempelen - The website of automatons, automata and androids.

According to Goethe, this machine was able "to pronounce several childish words very kindly."

As for Grimm, he explained that "…the machine already answered clearly to several questions : the voice was pleasant and soft, nothing but the "r" was pronounced as an uvular "r" and with a certain painful snore.

The study of the mechanism of the human language by the Baron von Kempelen - The website of automatons, automata and androids.

When the answer of the machine was not well understood, it was repeated again, but with the tone of a childish mood and impatience…"

Kempelen explained that his machine was able to pronounce "clearly and distinctly several hundreds of words, as for example : Daddy, Mummy, Marianna, Roma, Disease, Health, Astronomy, Opera, Mime show, and also long and difficult words such as Constantinopolis, Monomotapa, Astrakan, Anastasius …".

This machine was the first to produce vowels and above all entire words and short sentences. According to Kempelen, it was easy to master the instrument within two or three weeks, with the condition that "we would prefer producing words in Latin, French or Italian; German being much more difficult, since it is composed of muffled syllables and mixed consonants".

The talking machine by the Baron von Kempelen - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
The talking machine by the Baron von Kempelen

Outwardly, the machine was composed of a caisson, a rubbers funnel which acted as a mouth and a second one, smaller and divided into two parts, which fulfilled the functions of a nose. The internal mechanism was bellows that simulated the lungs.

The air flow was led into the "mouth" through a very narrow passage. A vibrating hip, which represents both the glottis and the

vocal chords, produced a sound. This one was then adjustable by different little levers and the use of the operator's fingers could alter the air at the exit of the "mouth", in order to simulate the movement of the lips.

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