Biography of Austrian Con-Artist Johann Nepomuk Maelzel Part 1

About the Austrian inventor, con-artist, and showman Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, his biography and famous Turk chess playing machine.


Austrian impresario.

In his prime, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel was known on both sides of the Atlantic as inventor, showman, and charlatan extraordinaire. But he began his professional life modestly enough, as a music teacher in Vienna in 1792. Uninspired by his work, Maelzel spent his spare hours building outlandish musical contraptions which were a showcase for his mechanical talents and his passion for the absurd. The most elaborate of them was the panharmonicon--an interconnected assortment of wind instruments through which a bellows blew, with the notes controlled by a revolving brass cylinder fitted with pins. Several years later, the inventor befriended Ludwig van Beethoven and talked the great composer into creating a composition especially for this "mechanical orchestra." Then Maelzel proposed they tour the Continent together, putting the machine through its paces in the great concert halls of Europe.

It was a grandiose plan that might have worked. Beethoven liked the idea and composed Wellington's Victory (or the Battle Symphony) for the panharmonicon, a piece of questionable quality commemorating the Duke of Wellington's victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Vitoria, Spain, in June, 1813. After a few initial performances, however, the composer accused his partner of trying to cheat him. He withdrew the piece--which is still played today by human orchestras--and Maelzel's plans foundered.

Maelzel was to have far greater success with an automatic chess player intriguingly known as the Turk. Even today, he is remembered more for the Turk, in fact, than for his collaboration with Beethoven or for the "Maelzel metronome," which unjustly bears his name.

For, just as Maelzel was not the inventor of the metronome--he merely added some refinements to what was essentially Stockel's creation--he did not invent the Turk either. Its real progenitor was Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, an engineer in the employ of the Empress Maria Theresa of Hungary. When Von Kempelen died in 1805, Maelzel swiftly descended on the Baron's son like a bird of prey, offering to take the Turk off his hands.

In 1809, Napoleon himself locked horns with the machine and was beaten handily. (Not only was he beaten, but the machine mechanically chastised the Emperor by sweeping all the pieces off the board when Napoleon tried to "test" it by playing a false move.) The Emperor's stepson, Eugene de Beauharnais, was endlessly intrigued by the Turk and offered to purchase it from Maelzel for 30,000 francs. Maelzel accepted the offer, but with an eye to buying the Turk back eventually. By 1817, he had scraped up enough money to make a down payment on the Turk, agreeing to pay out the balance over the next few years. The terms were easy, but the inventor had trouble keeping up with the installments. Rather than relinquish the machine because of defaulted payments, he sealed it carefully into a packing crate, gathered his belongings, slipped unobtrusively out of Vienna in the night, and eventually took passage on a ship bound for America. The year was 1825.

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