Issue 152 January-February 2013 RSS

Picture Piece: Mechanical Turk

Picture Piece

The chess-playing automaton that defeated Napoleon


Illustrations from Joseph Freidrich zu Racknitz, On the Chessplayer of Mr. von Kempelen and its Replica, 1789

In 1770, at the court of Empress Maria Theresa in Vienna, a Hungarian inventor named Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled his newest creation: the Schachtürke, a wooden automaton in the shape of an Ottoman pasha that could defeat all-comers at games of chess. It was an instant hit, and Von Kempelen took it all around Europe. Napoleon faced off three times against the Chess Turk, or the Mechanical Turk as it became known in English. So did Benjamin Franklin, who was obsessed by it; the Turk had beaten him.

Allegedly the robot worked via intricate, visible clockwork, but in 1821 an anonymous pamphlet revealed that the Turk was in fact controlled by a chess-playing operator stuffed inside. In that way, it was ahead of its time: why bother with machines when human labour is so much cheaper? At, owned by Amazon, you can hire ‘workers’ to perform numbingly repetitive tasks – transcribing receipts, tagging images, writing descriptions of porn videos – for as little as one penny per job. Once the digital sweatshop labour is complete, you can then pass it off as the project of pure technology. Which is not so dissimilar from the original automaton: the image of the Turk endures, but the name of the chess player who defeated Napoleon while crouched in a box has been lost to history. 

Jason Farago

is a columnist and critic based in New York, USA. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian and editor of the blog

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Issue 152, January-February 2013

by Jason Farago

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