Monday, June 1, 2009

The chess-playing robot is debunked

People were astounded by the accomplishments of a robot which not only was capable of playing chess, but which frequently beat its human competitors. "The Turk," as the robot was called (pictured in an engraving at right), had been touted throughout Europe by Wolfgang von Kempelen before being brought to the United States by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel in 1825. On June 1, 1828, however, a writer for the Baltimore Gazette questioned the authenticity of this modern marvel in an essay titled "The Chess-Player Discovered."

Edgar Poe may have witnessed this same automaton in action while in Richmond circa 1835. Poe, however, was not easily fooled and, perhaps more importantly, often questioned the sort of wonders he witnessed. In April 1836, the Southern Literary Messenger published Poe's own take of the chess-playing robot. The essay, titled "Maelzel's Chess-Player," tried to be more specific than the previous articles which debunked the robot hoax. Viewing the mystery almost like a game of chess, Poe analyzes the possible explanation for this marvelous "technology." He knows intuitively that it isn't possible, that it must be a fake — "the only question is the I manner in which human agency is brought to bear," he writes. Ultimately, Poe concludes that a very small person is operating the contraption from within, hiding in concealed compartments.

The reality is that The Turk had already been exposed as a fraud at least as early as June 1, 1828 — eight years before Poe's essay. What's important about Poe's story is the analysis he does, the step-by-step process, the method of debunking as much as possible before reaching his final conclusion. "Maelzel's Chess-Player" is, ultimately, a precursor to the "ratiocination" process which Poe will create in his character C. Auguste Dupin in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Yes, "Maelzel's Chess-Player" is another step towards Poe's invention of the modern detective story.

Poe, of course, was a hoaxster himself — among his most famous hoaxes is "The Balloon-Hoax," a story which suggested a gas balloon was able to cross the Atlantic Ocean in only three days. Poe would later borrow the name of the man who created The Turk in another hoax-like story about creating gold.

3 comments:

Amateur Reader said...

The Chess-Player piece is, in its way, classic Poe.

Rob Velella said...

Agreed!

Brian said...

To my surprise, after reading about this in Silverman's Poe bio, the Chess Player showed up in Goodwin's TEAM OF RIVALS -- even inspiring one of the chapter names, "There's a MAN In It!" Cool.