Biography of Austrian Con-Artist Johann Nepomuk Maelzel Part 2

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


Austrian impresario.

His 1st stateside appearance with the Turk was on April 13, 1826, at New York's National Hotel. Maelzel's twice-daily performances consistently drew standing-room-only crowds. What they saw, when the curtains lifted, was this:

An imposing if expressionless Turk--carved of wood, of course--turbaned, robed, and bedecked with jewels. He was seated erectly behind a 2 1/2' high wooden chest, a chess board carved into its top. When the audience had seen its fill of the Turk's outer self, Maelzel proceeded to open a series of doors in the wooden chest to expose the machine's mechanical innards, a whirring mass of cogs, wheels, metal cylinders, and brass fittings.

Closing the door and cranking the contraption up, he asked for a volunteer from the audience to challenge the Turk. Several spectators raised their hands; one man came forth. The Turk had white and played 1st, as it always did. Maelzel threw a switch, and the cogs and wheels ground noisily into motion. The long arm of the Turk creaked woodenly toward the king's pawn, made the opening move, and then returned to rest on a pillow atop the wooden chest as his opponent prepared to respond. Within a half hour the game was over. The Turk had won.

The audience was agog. "Nothing of a similar nature has ever been seen in this city that will bear the slightest comparison with it," wrote the New York Evening Post, and they were right: The Turk was unique. However, he wasn't all machine.

Although most spectators swallowed Maelzel's act whole, marveling at the wonder of a chess-playing machine, little did they know that the impressive machinery which Maelzel had so cavalierly displayed to his public was merely a front for an agile young assistant tucked neatly inside. The internal structure of the wooden chest allowed the assistant to move from one compartment to another rather quickly on a series of casters and skate boards, and with Maelzel opening only one door at a time, it wasn't difficult at all to escape detection.

During those 1st New York shows, it was a young woman who pulled the strings. A petite and rather attractive Parisienne--with whom Maelzel was forced to make do until William Schlumberger, a European chess bum he had recruited in Paris, could arrive in New York--the woman was a chess neophyte; but a crash course in strategy and technique enabled her to win most of her matches. Nevertheless, a nervous Maelzel, deciding that the risk of losing was too great, announced midway through his New York engagement that the Turk would no longer play full games against challengers. They took too long, he said, and those in the audience who were not confirmed chess buffs would surely lose interest. Instead, the Turk would play only end games.

Maelzel then had his young assistant memorize a large repertoire of end-game situations, as well as all the possible moves which could develop--a substantial achievement in itself, and one that assured the automaton of a perfect record, provided that he always have the 1st move. In the meantime, the impresario waited anxiously for Schlumberger to arrive.

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