The Turk on stamps

Jon Edwards

In the spring of 1777, Wolfgang von Kempelen appeared at the court of Maria Theresa, the Empress of Austria-Hungary with a chess-playing mechanical man.

Over the next 85 years, the device, which came to be known as the Turk, toured Europe and America, impressing audiences young and old with its chess prowess.

In Paris, London, New York, and Philadelphia, observers tried to determine whether the device harboured meaningful machinery or simply a well-concealed human.

The idea that a machine could really play chess inspired generations, and undoubtedly had an effect upon those in the last decades who have really fulfilled the objective: a "machine" that can play at grandmaster strength.

Three of the next images replicate an engraving by Carl Gottlieb showing the Turk with its front doors open. All of the earlier images on the stamps were taken from an engraving by Frieherr zu Racknitz, the author of a book that attempted to explain how the Turk worked.

The Turk not only played chess. It also solved a variety of chess problems, demonstrated the "knight's tour," and in its later years, spoke!

When von Kempelen died in 1804, his sons sold the Turk to a European inventor, Johann Maezel. In 1809, Maezel, claiming to have invented the chess automaton, brought the Turk before Napoleon Bonapart for a game. Maezel set up the Turk in the apartment of one of Napoleon's generals. There are many different accounts of this, the Turk's most famous encounter. Napolean is said to have tried several illegal moves to test the mechanism. The following stamp illustrates the painting: "Napoleon vs. the Turk at Schoenbrunn, 1809" (1956) by the Polish artist Antoni Uniechowski (1903-1976).

Napoleon v The Turk, 1809.

Obviously, the Turk relied upon a human being concealed within the aparatus. Two strong masters, Allgaier and Mouret, may have been its operators. Unfortunately, a Philadelphia fire destroyed the first Turk. A reproduction has been created.

It is, perhaps, fitting to conclude with the next souvenir sheet, issued by Niger to honor both the Turk and Deep Blue. The position on the stamp honors a game from the 1996 match between Kasparov and the IBM computer.

Kasparov v Deep Blue, Philadelphia, 1996.

The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine, Tom Standage. The Turk, a supposed a chess-playing automaton, impressed Europe and America during the late eighteen and early nineteenth centuries. A wonderful read, with much more to say about the life and times than the machine itself.

The Turk: Chess Automaton, Gerald Levitt. With all-new research and facts unknown for two centuries, this is a richly detailed and comprehensive account of "The Turk." This work contains a detailed discussion of the literature surrounding the Turk along with an analysis of its hidden operation. The complete collection of published games played by the Turk, many, again, unknown for 200 years, is also included.

Behind Deep Blue: Building the Computer That Defeated the World Chess Champion, Feng-Hsiung Hsu. This book about DEEP BLUE describes the building of the computer software that defeated Gary Kasparov in the famous New York match. A wonderful read for adults. An insider's view not only of the games, but the amazing events behind the match.

The Chess Player (1930). Raymond Bernard's epic silent film, released now as a DVD. This powerful drama of patriotism, betrayal and suspense combines gorgeous decors and thousands of extras. In 1776 Poland, nobleman Boleslas Vorowski heads a secret liberation movement against Russia and learns his childhood sweetheart, Sophie, loves his friend, a Russian officer. When Vorowsky is wounded in battle, his mentor, the inventor Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, constructs a marvelous chess- playing automaton which, when summoned by Catherine the Great, holds the fate of Polish independence by a single, suspenseful chess game. Like Abel Gance's Napoleon, director Raymond Bernard "Demands a veritable ovation: the cavalry charge reaches heights never before reached in film. So magnificent... So splendid!" - Cinemagazine