Recent discussions in the Press about the Electric Brain revive memories of Automaton chess. The facts, as far as may be ascertained, are as follows. In 1769, Wolfgang van Kempelen, at that time in Vienna, was invited by the Empress Marie Theresa to attend certain magnetic experiments shown at the Court by a certain Frenchman, M. Pelletier. He went but said he could invent a machine far more surprising. In 1770 he returned with the automaton, a machine which could play chess and beat really good players. He exhibited it in Vienna in 1770, in Russia in 1776 and in Paris in 1783 where Benjamin Franklin, the American statesman-scientist, studied it. In 1783 it was possibly shown in London. In 1805 von Kempelen's son sold it to Johann N Maelzel, himself a mechanical genius, said by some to have invented Beethoven's metronome. Maelzel took it on tour and in 1809 Napoleon is said to have played a game against it during the Wagram campaign.

Prince Eugene de Beauharnais bought the machine for 30,000 francs and Maelzel gave part of the money to Beethoven. In 1817 Beauharnois sold it back again to Maelzel for the same sum. No cash was handed over but Maelzel was to pay from any profits he might make. About1825 the heirs of Prince Beauharnais sued Maelzel for the balance so he went to the U.S.

John Dickson Carr, the detective story writer, describes the machine in one of his stories. ln appearance it consisted of a human figure sitting down at a board which stood on a wooden chest. This chest had three doors in front. The owner of the affair always opened these doors one at a time to " prove " that the chest was empty of anything save a little mechanism and, anyway, could contain nothing larger than a child. The secret was that the machine did actually contain a man, at first a Polish expert called Worowski, said to have lost his legs in the wars. No one realized that his legs were artificial and so his presence inside the machine without legs was never suspected. In Paris in the1820's M. Mouret was said to be in the machine. He gave pawn and move to all comers,and is supposed to have won 99% of his games.

Different players worked the machine in Paris but when Maelzel went to the U.S. he had no expert to help him. At the first exhibition he gave in the U.S., on thursday, April 13th, 1826, at the National Hotel, l12 Broadway, a young Frenchwoman was inside and played only set end games. It was shown in Boston and again in New York. Maelzel then wrote to France for an expert and a certain Schlumberger accepted the contract.

In1834 Maelzel showed the automaton in Philadelphia with a mechanical orchestra. Then he took it on tour to Boston, New York, Baltimore, Pittsburg, Washington and Richmond. Edgar Allen Poe saw it at Richmond and described how it worked in the Southern Literary Messenger in April, 1836. His logical mind dissected the "spoof" very quickly.

In November, 1837 Maelzel and Schlumberger sailed to Cuba but Schlumberger died of yellow fever on the way there and Maelzel on the way back. To pay his debts,Maelzel's effects were sold and the automaton was bought for 400 dollars by a Mr. Ohl who soon disposed of it. It was kept in various museums, finally to be destroyed in the great fire which devastated Philadelphia On july 5th, 1854.

Since that date similar machines have been invented. An American named Walker copled the idea from Maelzel and exhibited it in 1827 in New York, Saratoga aid other places but as the machine was often beaten it attracted llttleattention.

A more famous machine called "Mephisto" was built by C. G, Gumpel and shown In London in 1879. It was worked by remote electrical contral by Gunsberg. The figure, Mephisto, was clothed in red and black and worked in a room framed with mirrors. It was shown for12 months only and then broken up. When playing with ladies it would obtain a winning position and then lose the game, offering to shake hands afterwards.

A similar machine was "Aheeb," built by Charles Arthur Hopper and exhibited ai the Royal Polytechnical Institute in 1868. Iti was lodged at the Crystal Palace between 1868 and 1876 and then went to the Royal Aquarium at Westminster till 1877. Then it was taken to Berlin where over100,000 saw it in three months. It played at Breslau, Dresden, Leipzig, Hanover, Magdeburg, Cologne, Elbefeld, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt and Wiesbaden. Afterwards it visited Brussels and Paris and here Zukertort is said to have played against it. Rosenthal played it twice, winning one and losing one. In 1885 Aheeb visited New York and Minneapolis, Chicago and Kansas City. Charles F. Moehle and Charles Francis Barker, U.S. draughts champion, worked the machine in turn. It remained in New York fram 1395 till 1916. Then it was set up in Coney Island and was destroyed by fire on March l5th, 1929. Between 1898 and 1904 Pillsbury is said to have worked it.

Aheeb's eyes were.fixed so as to meet one directly if one looked up from the board and it continued to stare while moving the pieces. The concealed player looked out through a screen in the figure's breast aad moved his head when the supporting chest was opened, lowering some dummy wheels and wires to take his place. The figure could net be inspected during a game. The player's legs went down into the stand on which the board rested. After apparently showing the machine and closing the doors, there would be a clanking of cogwheels which was a signal to the player to get ready. According to the Scientific American Supplement of November 6th, 1915, a Spanish engineer named Senor Luis Torres y Quevedo made a more remarkable machine still. It automatically played the end game of King and Rook against King from any position without any human agency at all and if an illegal move were made it would signal it.

CHESS January 1947

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Last modified may 1997.