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step-son, Eugène Beauharnais, the Viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy.
But the old love of “adventurous travel with the Turbaned Turk” took
possession of him, and he succeeded in buying back the Chess Player
from its royal owner. He went to Paris with it in 1817 and 1818,
afterwards to London, meeting everywhere with success. In 1826 he
brought it to America. The Chess Player excited the greatest interest
throughout the United States. Noted chess experts did their best to
defeat it, but rarely succeeded.


Now for a description of the automaton.

The audience was introduced into a large room, at one end of which
hung crimson curtains. These curtains being drawn aside, Maelzel
rolled forward a box on castors. Behind the box or {109} table,
which was two feet and a half high, three feet and a half long, and
two feet wide, was seated cross-legged, the figure of a Turk. The
chair on which the figure was affixed was permanently attached to the
box. At the top of the box was a chess-board. The figure had its eyes
fixed intently upon this board, its right hand and arm being extended
towards the board, its left, which was somewhat raised, holding a
long pipe.

Four doors, two in front, and two in the rear of the box, were
opened, and a lighted candle thrust into the cavities. Nothing was to
be seen except cog wheels, levers, and intricate machinery. A long
drawer, which contained the chessmen and a cushion, was pulled out.
Two doors in the Turk’s body were thrown open, and the candle held
inside, to satisfy the spectators that nothing but machinery was
contained therein.

Maelzel wound up the automaton with a large key, took away the pipe,
and placed the cushion under the arm of the figure. Curious to relate
the automaton played with its left hand. In Von Kempelen’s day, the
person selected to play with the figure, sat at the same chess-board
with it, but Maelzel altered this. A rope separated the machine from
the audience, and the player sat at a small table, provided with a
chess-board, some ten or twelve feet away from the Turk.

The automaton invariably chose the white chess-men, and made the
first move, its fingers opening as the hand was extended towards the
board, and the piece picked up and removed to its proper square.

When his antagonist had made his move, the automaton paused and
appeared to study the game, before proceeding further. It nodded its
head to indicate check to the king. If a false move was made by its
opponent, it rapped on the table, and replaced the piece, claiming
the move for itself. Maelzel, acting for the human player, repeated
his move on the chess-board of the Turk, and when the latter moved,
made the corresponding move on the board of the challenger. The
whirring of machinery was heard during the progress of the game,
but this was simply a blind. It subserved two purposes: _first_,
to induce the spectators to believe that the automaton was really
operated by ingenious mechanism, {110} _second_, to disguise the
noise made by the concealed confederate as he shifted himself from
one compartment to the other, as the various doors were opened and
shut in succession. No machine could possibly be constructed to
imitate the human mind when engaged in playing chess, or any other
mental operation where the indeterminate enters and which requires
knowledge and reflection. But the majority of people who saw the
automaton did not realize this fact, and pronounced it a _pure

Signor Blitz, the conjurer, who was intimate with Maelzel, having
frequently given entertainments in conjunction with him, was
possessed of the secret of the Turk. In his memoirs, he says: “The
Chess Player was ingeniously constructed—a perfect counterpart of a
magician’s trick-table with a variety of partitions and doors, which,
while they removed every possible appearance of deception, only
produced greater mystery, and provided more security to the invisible
player. The drawers and closets were so arranged as to enable him
to change his position according to circumstances: at one moment he
would be in this compartment; the next in that; then in the body of
the Turk.”

He says this concealed assistant was named Schlumberger.

This explanation is verified by Professor Allen,[20] who was very
intimate with Maelzel.

[20] Fiske’s _Book of the First American Chess Congress_,
New York, 1859. Pp. 420–484.

William Schlumberger was a native of Alsace, a remarkable chess
expert and linguist. Maelzel picked him up in the Café de la Regence,
Paris, where he eked out a meagre living as a teacher of chess.

Occasionally, Schlumberger would over-indulge in wine, and as a
result would be beaten, while acting as the motive power of the
Turk. “On one occasion,” says Professor Allen, “just as Maelzel was
bringing the Turk out from behind the curtain, a strange noise was
heard to proceed from his interior organization, something between
a rattle, a cough, and a sneeze. Maelzel pushed back his ally in
evident alarm, but presently brought him forward again, and went on
with the exhibition as if nothing had happened.” {111}

Schlumberger not only acted as confederate, but served his employer
as secretary and clerk.

Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote an exposé of the automaton when it
visited Richmond, remarked: “There is a man, Schlumberger, who
attends him (Maelzel) wherever he goes, but who has no ostensible
occupation other than that of assisting in packing and unpacking of
the automaton. Whether he professes to play chess or not, we are
not informed. It is quite certain, however, that he is never to be
seen during the exhibition of the Chess Player, although frequently
visible just before and after the exhibition. Moreover, some years
ago Maelzel visited Richmond with his automaton. Schlumberger was
suddenly taken ill, and during his illness there was no exhibition of
the Chess Player. These facts are well known to many of our citizens.
The reason assigned for the suspension of the Chess Player’s
performances was _not_ the illness of _Schlumberger_. The inferences
from all this we leave, without further comment, to the reader.”

Edgar Allen Poe, the apostle of mystery, certainly hit the nail on
the head here, and solved the problem of the automaton.

The Chess Player had the honor of defeating Napoleon the Great—“the
Victor in a hundred battles.” This was in the year 1809, when
Maelzel, by virtue of his office as Mechanician to the Court of
Austria, was occupying some portion of the Palace of Schönbrunn,
“when Napoleon chose to make the same building his headquarters
during the Wagram campaign.” A man by the name of Allgaier was the
concealed assistant on this occasion. Napoleon was better versed in
the art of manœuvring human kings, queens, prelates and pawns on the
great chess-boards of diplomacy and battle than moving ivory chessmen
on a painted table-top.

Maelzel, in addition to the Chess Player, exhibited his own
inventions, which were really automatons, also the famous panorama,
“The Burning of Moscow.” After a splendid tour throughout the States,
he went to Havana, Cuba, where poor Schlumberger died of yellow
fever. On the return trip Maelzel himself died, and was buried at
sea. This was in 1838.

The famous Turk, with other of Maelzel’s effects, was sold {112}
at public auction in Philadelphia. The automaton was bought by
Dr. J. K. Mitchell, reconstructed, and privately exhibited by him
for the amusement of his friends. Finally it was deposited in the
Chinese Museum, where it remained for fourteen years, with the dust
accumulating upon it. Here the Chess Player rested from his labors,
a superannuated, broken down pensioner, dreaming, if automatons can
dream, of his past adventures, until the year 1854. On July 5 of
that year a great fire destroyed the Museum, and the Turbaned Turk
was burnt to ashes. Better such a fate than rotting to pieces in the
cellar of some old warehouse, forgotten and abandoned.

Robert-Houdin, in his autobiography, tells a most romantic story
about the Chess Player, the accuracy of which has been seriously
doubted. He also makes several errors concerning its career and
that of Maelzel. R. Shelton Mackenzie, who translated Houdin’s life
(1859), calls attention to these mistakes, in his preface to that
work. “This remarkable piece of mechanism was constructed in 1769,
and not in 1796; it was the Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria who
played with it, and not Catherine II of Russia. M. Maelzel’s death
was in 1838, on the voyage from Cuba to the United States, and not,
as M. Houdin says, on his return to France; and the automaton,
so far from being taken back to France, was sold at auction here
[Philadelphia], where it was consumed in the great fire of July 5,

I believe that the true history of the Chess Player is related by
Prof. George Allen, of the University of Pennsylvania, in Fiske’s
_Book of the first American Chess Congress_, N. Y., 1859, pp. 420–484.


Now for Houdin’s entertaining story of the Chess Player. In the year
1796, a revolt broke out in a half-Russian, half-Polish regiment
stationed at Riga, capital of Livonia, Russia. At the head of the
rebels was an officer named Worousky, a man of talent and energy.
He was of short stature, but well built. The revolutionists were
defeated in a pitched battle and put to flight {113} by the
Russians. Worousky had both thighs shattered by a cannon ball and
fell on the battle field. However, he escaped from the general
massacre of his comrades by casting himself into a ditch near a
hedge, not far from the house of a doctor named Osloff. At nightfall
he dragged himself with great difficulty to the house, and was taken
in by the benevolent physician, who promised to conceal him. Osloff
eventually had to amputate both of Worousky’s legs, close to the
body. The operation was successful. During this time, the famous
Baron von Kempelen came to Russia, and paid Dr. Osloff a visit. He
also took compassion upon the crippled Polish officer. It seems
that Worousky was a master of the game of chess, and repeatedly
defeated Osloff and Kempelen. Kempelen then conceived the idea of the
automaton chess player, as a means of assisting Worousky to escape
from Russia, and immediately set about building it. It was completed
in June, 1796. In order to avert suspicion Osloff and Kempelen
determined to play at several of the smaller towns and cities before
reaching the frontier.

The first performance was given at Toula. Says Houdin: “I possess a
copy of the original bill, which was given me by M. Hessler, nephew
of Dr. Osloff, who also supplied me with all these details. Worousky
won every game he played at Toula, and the papers were full of
praises of the automaton. Assured of success by the brilliancy of
their début, M. de Kempelen and his companion proceeded towards the

Worousky was concealed from sight, while traveling, in the enormous
chest which held the Chess Player. Air holes were made in the sides
of the chest to enable him to breathe. They arrived without adventure
at Vitebsk, on the road to the Prussian frontier, when a letter came
summoning them to the imperial palace at St. Petersburg. The Empress
Catherine II, having heard of the automaton’s wonderful talent,
desired to play a game with it. They dared not refuse this demand.
Worousky, who had a price set on his head, was the coolest of the
three, and seemed delighted at the idea of playing with the Empress.
After fifteen days travel they reached St. Petersburg. Kempelen had
the automaton carried to the palace in the same chest in which {114}
it traveled, thereby secretly conveying Worousky thither. The Chess
Player was set up in the library, and at the appointed hour Catherine
II, followed by a numerous suite, entered and took her place at the
chess-board. The members of the Court took their places behind the
Empress. Kempelen never allowed anyone to pass behind the automaton,
and would not consent to begin the game till all the spectators were
in front of the board.

“The chest and the Turk’s body were then examined, and when all were
perfectly convinced they contained nothing but clockwork, the game
began. It proceeded for some time in perfect silence, but Catherine’s
frowning brow speedily revealed that the automaton was not very
gallant towards her, and fully deserved the reputation it had gained.
The skillful Mussulman captured a bishop and a knight, and the game
was turning much to the disadvantage of the lady, when the Turk,
suddenly forgetting his dignified gravity, gave a violent blow on his
cushion, and pushed back a piece his adversary had just moved.

“Catherine II had attempted to cheat; perhaps to try the skill of
the automaton, or for some other reason. At any rate the haughty
empress, unwilling to confess her weakness, replaced the piece on
the same square, and regarded the automaton with an air of imperious
authority. The result was most unexpected—the Turk upset all the
pieces with a blow of his hand, and immediately the clock work, which
had been heard during the whole game, stopped. It seemed as if the
machinery had got out of repair. Pale and trembling, M. de Kempelen,
recognizing in this Worousky’s impetuous temper, awaited the issue of
this conflict between the insurgent and his sovereign.

“ ‘Ah, ah! my good automaton! your manners are rather rough,’ the
Empress said, good humoredly, not sorry to see a game she had small
chance of winning end thus. ‘Oh! you are a famous player, I grant;
but you were afraid of losing the game, and so prudently upset the
pieces. Well, I am now quite convinced of your skill and your violent

“M. de Kempelen began to breathe again, and regaining courage, tried
to remove the unfavorable impression which the little {115} respect
shown by the automaton must have produced. Hence he said, humbly:

“ ‘Will your majesty allow me to offer an explanation of what has
just happened?’

“ ‘By no means, M. de Kempelen,’ Catherine said, heartily,—‘by no
means; on the contrary, I find it most amusing, and your automaton
pleases me so much that I wish to purchase it. I shall thus always
have near me a player, somewhat quick perhaps, but yet able to hold
his own. You can leave it here tonight, and come tomorrow morning to
arrange the price.’

“There is strong reason to believe that Catherine wished to commit
an indiscretion when she evinced a desire that the figure should
remain at the palace till next morning. Fortunately, the skillful
mechanician managed to baffle her feminine curiosity by carrying
Worousky off in the big chest. The automaton remained in the library,
but the player was no longer there.

“The next day Catherine renewed her proposition to purchase the Chess
Player, but Kempelen made her understand that, as the figure could
not perform without him, he could not possibly sell it. The empress
allowed the justice of these arguments; and, while complimenting the
mechanician on his invention, made him a handsome present.

“Three months after the automaton was in England, under the
management of Mr. Anthon, to whom Kempelen had sold it. I know not
if Worousky was still attached to it, but I fancy so, owing to the
immense success the Chess Player met with. Mr. Anthon visited the
whole of Europe, always meeting with the same success; but, at
his death, the celebrated automaton was purchased by Maelzel, who
embarked with it for New York. It was then, probably, Worousky took
leave of his hospitable Turk, for the automaton was not nearly so
successful in America. After exhibiting his mechanical trumpeter and
Chess Player for some time, Maelzel set out again for France, but
died on the passage, of an attack of indigestion. His heirs sold his
apparatus, and thus Cronier obtained his precious relic.” The Chess
Player caused the greatest amount of discussion in its time. At the
solicitation of a leading theatrical manager of Paris, Houdin {116}
arranged the trick for a melodrama, in which Catherine II of Russia
was one of the characters.


I now come to the celebrated inventions of Maskelyne which were
exhibited at Egyptian Hall, London. First on the list comes the
automaton whist player, “Psycho,” which far exceeds the Chess Player
of Von Kempelen in ingenious construction. Its secret has never been

[Illustration: J. N. MASKELYNE]

Says the _Encyclopedia Britannica_: “In 1875 Maskelyne and Cooke
produced at the Egyptian Hall, in London, an automaton whist player,
‘Psycho,’ which from the manner in which it is placed upon the
stage, appears to be perfectly isolated from any {117} mechanical
communication from without . . . The arm has all the complicated
movements necessary for chess or draught playing; and ‘Psycho’
calculates any sum up to a total of 99,000,000. . . . ‘Psycho’, an
Oriental figure, sitting cross-legged on a box, is supported by a
single large cylinder of clear glass, which as originally exhibited,
stood upon the carpet of the stage, but was afterwards set loose
upon a small stool, having solid wood feet; moreover, this automaton
may be placed in almost any number of different ways. . . . It may
be mentioned that in the same year in which ‘Psycho’ appeared,
the joint inventors patented a method of controlling the speed of
clockwork mechanism by compressed air or gas stored in the pedestal
of an automaton, this compressed air acting upon a piston in a
cylinder and also upon a rotating fan when a valve is opened by ‘an
electrical or other connection worked by the foot of the performer or
an assistant.’ But it is not known whether the principle obscurely
described in the specification was applicable in any way to the
invisible agency employed in ‘Psycho,’ or whether it had reference to
some other invention which has never been realized.”

A very clever exposé of “Psycho” was published in an English
newspaper, November, 1877. That it is the correct one, I am by
no means certain. But an ingenious mechanic by carrying out its
provisions would be enabled to construct an excellent imitation of
the Maskelyne so-called automaton.

[Illustration: FIGS. 1A, 1B.]

[Illustration: FIG. 2.]

[Illustration: FIG. 3.]

[Illustration: FIG. 4.]

“In Figs. _1a_ and _1b_ (elevation and plan), the wheels E and M
have each a train of clockwork (left out for the sake of clearness),
which would cause them to spin round if unchecked. M, however, has
two pins, _p p_, which catch on a projection on the lever, N. E is
a crown-wheel escapement—like that in a bottle roasting-jack—which
turns A alternately to the left and right, thus causing the hand to
traverse the thirteen cards. A little higher up on A will be seen
a quadrant, B (see plan), near the edge of which are set thirteen
little pins. The end of the lever, N, drops between any two of them,
thus causing the hand to stop at any desired card. The lever being
pivoted at _c_, it is obvious that by depressing the end, N, B will
be set at liberty, {118} and the hand will move along the cards; by
slightly raising it this motion will be arrested; by raising it still
more the pin, _p_, is released, and M commences to revolve, and by
again depressing N this wheel will, in its turn, be stopped. Near
the bottom of the apparatus is a bellows, O, which contains a spring
tending to keep the lever, N, with which it is connected by a rod, X,
in the position shown. This is connected with the tubular support,
which may be connected by a tube through the leg of the stool, and
another tube beneath the stage, with an assistant behind the scenes.
By compressing or exhausting air through this tube it is obvious that
the lever, N, will be raised or depressed, and the clockwork set
going accordingly. _a_ is a crank-pin set in M, and connected with
the head by catgut, T, and with the thumb by S. At R and R are two
pulleys connected by gut. Thus if the {119} hand moves round, the
head appears to follow its motions, and when raised by pulling S,
the head rises also by means of T. Further explanation seems almost
unnecessary; _l_ is a stop to prevent the elbow moving too far, and
_b b_ spiral springs, to keep the thumb open and the head forward
respectively. When N is raised, M pulls T and S, the latter closing
the thumb, and then raising the arm by pulley H. If the lever is
allowed to drop, _p_ will catch and keep the arm up. On again raising
N, the arm will descend.

“In addition to the above contrivance, we have in Figs. 2 and 3
another and simpler arrangement, in which only one train of clockwork
is used. On the same axle as H is fixed a lever and weight, W, to
balance the arm. A vertical rod, X, having a projection, Z, slides
up and down in guides, Y Y, and carries the catgut, S and T. The
quadrant, B, has cogs cut, between which Z slides and stops the
motion of A, which is moved, as before, by clockwork. The lower part
of X is connected directly with O. When X is slightly raised, as
shown, A is free to move, but on exhausting the air and drawing X
down, Z enters the cogs and stops the hand over a card; continuing
to exhaust, the thumb closes and the card is lifted up.” The details
of the clockwork the originator of this solution omits to give. He
says there should be a fan on each train to regulate the speed. The
figure should be so placed that an assistant can see the cards in the
semi-circular rack Fig. 4.

One of Maskelyne’s best mechanical tricks is the “Spirit Music-Box,”
for an exposé of which I am indebted to my friend Mr. Henry V.
A. Parsell, of New York City, a lover of the art of magic. The
construction of this novel piece of apparatus will afford a clue
to many alleged mediumistic performances. Professor Parsons, of
New Haven, Conn., is the owner of the box, reproduced in the
illustration. Says Mr. Parsell:

“A sheet of plate glass is exhibited freely to the audience and
proved to contain no electric wires or mechanism. This glass plate is
then suspended horizontally in the center of the stage by four cords
hooked to its corners. An ordinary looking music-box is then brought
in by the assistant. It is opened, so that {120} the audience can
see the usual mechanism within. The music-box is now placed on the
glass plate and the performer comes down among the spectators.
Notwithstanding the isolation of the box the command of the performer
suffices to cause it to play, or cease, in obedience to his will.
It matters not in what part of the room the conjurer goes—his word
is enough to make silence or harmony issue from the box, always
beginning where it left off and never skipping a note. The simple
cause of this marvelous effect lies in the mechanism of the box and
in its mode of suspension.


Fig. 5.

Fig. 6.


“A small music box of this kind is shown in Fig. 5. The box is seen
with its mechanism removed and resting upon it. In addition to the
usual cylinder, comb and wheel-work, there is a device for starting
and stopping the box when it is tilted slightly endwise. This
consists of a light shaft delicately pivoted and carrying at one end
a lead weight (seen just in front of the cylinder), and at the other
end an arm of light wire whose far end is bent down so as to engage
the fly of the wheel-work. In Fig. 5 the mechanism is tilted so that
the wire arm is raised; the fly is now free to revolve and the box

“A front view of the mechanism is shown in Fig. 6. Here the arm is
down, arresting the motion of the fly and producing {121} silence.
When the box is resting on the glass plate an assistant behind the
scenes causes the plate to tilt slightly up or down by raising or
lowering the cords which support one end. The mechanism of the box is
so delicately adjusted that an imperceptible motion of the plate is
sufficient to control its playing.”


John Nevil Maskelyne, a descendant of Nevil Maskelyne, the eminent
astronomer and physicist, was born in Cheltenham, England, and
like Houdin was apprenticed to a watchmaker. At an early age, he
manifested a wonderful aptitude for mechanics. He employed most of
his spare time while working at the trade of horology in devising
and building optical and mechanical apparatus for show purposes. In
this respect his career exactly parallels that of Robert-Houdin. He
was likewise interested in sleight of hand tricks, but never carried

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Online LibraryHenry Ridgely EvansThe Old and the New Magic → online text (page 11 of 28)