Replications of Life: Kempelen and the Art of "Turking" It

I appreciate a good hoax; and no hoax is any good unless it wrings from you the admission that you have been had. My common sense yields to the artistry of the con, the handiwork of cheeky tricksters who can cheat you out of your trousers by presenting you a with a hook from which to suspend your disbelief. And however desperately I might try to cover up and recover my composure by juggling an assortment of polysyllables, I am just the kind of fall guy you’d love to be around on April Fools’ Day—or any other day, if you are among those who practice their legerdemain without a license.

To cry foul at the art of faking, as Oscar Wilde put it, to “confuse an ethical with an aesthetical problem.” Not that such a defense would have done for Orson Welles and his Mercury Players, whose aforementioned Halloween make-believe gave broadcasters cause for alarm after some radio listeners panicked at the announcement of a Martian invasion back in 1938. In the case of the famous Turk, the fakery was comparatively inoffensive and harmless, excepting perhaps for the wretch squeezed into the apparatus, a replica of which (by illusionist supplier John Gaughan) I encountered at the Műcsarnok in Budapest. It is on display there until 28 May 2007, after which time it may be seen in Karlsruhe, Germany, from 15 June until 19 August 2007, over two hundred years after its first appearance in that town.

The chess-playing automaton was the creation of Austro-Hungarian baron Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804), who, according to Edgar Allan Poe, “had no scruple in declaring it to be a ‘very ordinary piece of mechanism—a bagatelle whose effects appeared so marvellous only from the boldness of the conception, and the fortunate choice of the methods adopted for promoting the illusion.'” The marvel of the Turk was that it kept audiences guessing, not so much what his next move might be, but how he moved and whether he actually contemplated the movements of the pieces in the game. What was the ghost in this machine? Was it some precursor of “The Automaton” that, on 27 July 1953, stalked radio’s Hall of Fantasy? Might the Turk have a mind of his own (a thought to cause suspicious westerners unease)?

Poe became intrigued by the mystery of the Turk when this player of mind games toured America after having been acquired by a German inventor-showman who shrouded the creation in further mystery by refusing to say whether it was “a pure machine or not.” As Poe speculated in “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” the “notoriety” and “great curiosity” of the Turk were “owing more especially to the prevalent opinion that it is a pure machine, than to any other circumstance.” It was, therefore,

in the interest of the proprietor to represent it as a pure machine. And what more obvious, and more effectual method could there be of impressing the spectators with this desired idea, than a positive and explicit declaration to that effect? On the other hand, what more obvious and effectual method could there be of exciting a disbelief in the Automaton’s being a pure machine, than by withholding such explicit declaration?

Being in the know without having had the courage of falling for it or the virtue of rising to the occasion by exercising one’s imagination is a profligate waste of curiosity. It means to reduce a philosophical problem to a mechanical one. More compelling than the matter of its nuts and bolts was how the Turk worked on the minds of those surrounding him. “For, people will naturally reason,” Poe argued, that it is

Maelzel’s interest to represent this thing a pure machine—he refuses to do so, directly, in words, although he does not scruple, and is evidently anxious to do so, indirectly by actions—were it actually what he wishes to represent it by actions, he would gladly avail himself of the more direct testimony of words—the inference is, that a consciousness of its not being a pure machine, is the reason of his silence—his actions cannot implicate him in a falsehood—his words may.

To this day, Germans refer to what they deem forged, false or fake as being “turked” (“getürkt”), which, I am pleased to say, explains nothing.

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