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John K. Mitchell’s Automaton Chess Player

Adapted from "Legend and Lore: Jefferson Medical College" 
Chapter 12: Jefferson Vignettes by Dan Flanagan

Back in the mid-19th Century, a Jefferson professor named John Kearsley Mitchell purchased a world-famous Automaton known as the “Turk.” The Automaton—an aloof, turbaned figure—toured far and wide, playing chess, defeating all comers, and baffling audiences (including one Edgar Allan Poe). When Mitchell bought it, the Automaton’s creator had just died in town, and the “Turk” had been seized to settle debts. Unfortunately, the machine was in pieces. Mitchell painstakingly reassembled it and had it displayed in a nearby museum. Years later, the museum caught fire. Mitchell’s son, himself a Jefferson alumnus, attempted to rescue the Turk from the flames. He failed, but afterward published an obituary of the Automaton that revealed the secret of its incredible chess prowess.

From 1841 to 1858, John Kearsley Mitchell served as professor of the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Jefferson, part of the school’s then seven-man faculty. This group—which boasted the likes of Thomas Dent Mütter, the famed collector of medical artifacts, Robley Dunglison, the “Father of American Physiology,” and later, Samuel D. Gross, the “Emperor of Surgery”—quickly established itself as one of the best faculties in the nation. Their lectures attracted not only large numbers of aspiring medical students, but many practicing physicians as well.

In an 1880 address before the Alumni Association, which was dedicated to the memory of the “Famous Faculty of 1841,” John Hill Brinton, MD 1852, spoke of Mitchell’s devotion to the students.

The Automaton Chess Machine: This engraving first appeared in a 1783 pamphlet written by Karl Gollleib von Windisch and was based on drawings provided by the Automaton's inventor, Bawn Wolfgang von Kempelen. (©The Library Company of Philadelphia)

“He was the student’s friend. In sickness and trouble, they turned to him, and never sought his aid in vain. Many a poor young fellow, struggling in the vortex of a great city’s temptation, has he sustained by his wise counsel and kindly sympathy. Many a student has he helped from his own purse, and none the wiser.”

Mitchell was something of a polymath, with a mind eminently poetical and susceptible of the beautiful. Perhaps the most unique object to attract Mitchell’s curiosity was the famed Automaton Chess Machine, which he painstakingly reconstructed during the summer of 1840.

The device consisted of a life-sized model of a human head and torso, with a black beard and grey eyes, and dressed in Ottoman robes and a turban. Known as the “Turk,” it had been originally built in Vienna in 1769 by Baron Wolfgang Von Kempelen, a brilliant mechanician employed by the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa.

For 84 years, the Turk toured Europe and the Americas, amazing onlookers and winning most of its games. The machine defeated such august challengers as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.

After the Baron’s death in 1804, another mechanician employed at the Court named John Nepomuk Mälzel purchased the Automaton from Kempelen’s heirs. 

The Turk was a sensation when it arrived in New York City in 1826, making news in virtually every American newspaper.

It toured as far west as the Mississippi River. In Richmond, Virginia, the Turk was observed by Edgar Allan Poe, who was writing for the Southern Literary Messenger. Poe’s essay “Mälzel’s Chess Player” was published in April 1836 and is the most famous essay on the machine, although many of Poe’s hypotheses were incorrect (such as that a chess-playing machine must always win).

The Turk sat behind an enclosed four-foot-square table, like a cabinet. Theatrically, Mälzel would throw open every part of the box, showing the audience a spiderweb of machinery that connected it to the torso of the Turk. Then he’d invite someone to inspect the Turk, showing no person was under or behind it. 

Challengers would sit at a bench with a second table with an identical chessboard. Opponents didn’t play the Automoton directly because the chess pieces had to be placed precisely in the center of every square for the Automaton to grasp them.

After an opponent moved, Mälzel moved the corresponding piece on the Automaton’s board. The Turk gracefully would raise its left arm, capture and lay down the opposing piece, grasp its own piece, and carefully place it on the correct square. The game proceeded until the Turk brought some important piece of his opponent’s in check, which it invariably announced with the usual formality, pronouncing distinctly the French word “echeque.” The game usually ended in favor of the Automaton.

When Mälzel arrived in Philadelphia, he rented an exhibition hall on South Fifth Street, between Walnut and Prune (now Locust), directly around the corner from what was then called Jefferson Medical College (in the old Tivoli Theater at 518-20 Prune). 

In 1838, following Mälzel’s unexpected death at sea, the Automaton was sent to an auctioning block in Philadelphia. The sale brought a response from a seemingly unlikely prospect: John Kearsley Mitchell.

Though he was one of Philadelphia’s most successful medical practitioners, Mitchell’s pockets were not deep enough to justify the purchase. Instead, Mitchell had the idea to make the Automaton the property of a “club.” Membership depended solely upon a personal acquaintance with Mitchell and a predisposition, on that account, to part with five or ten dollars. George Allen humorously classified the membership of the club into three distinct groups:

“Many subscribed their entrance fee to the club because they wished at the same time to know the secret and to please Dr. Mitchell; others because they wished to please Dr. Mitchell, without caring to know the secret; and some few, as in all voluntary subscriptions, subscribed because they could not refuse.”

Ultimately, the names of 75 prominent Philadelphians appeared on the subscription list, including members of University of Pennsylvania’s medical faculty and three of Mitchell’s future associates on the 1841 Jefferson faculty: Charles D. Meigs, Joseph Pancoast, and Mütter. 

When it arrived at Mitchell's office, the Automaton was contained inside five wooden crates that had been packed by Mälzel shortly before his death. He neglected to leave any directions behind for Mitchell to follow, and reassembling the Automaton appeared near impossible.

Before long, Mitchell’s office took on the appearance of a machine repair shop as the contents of the boxes spilled out across the floor for sorting and identification. To make the task even more difficult, Mälzel intentionally added components to the storage crates which did not belong to the Automaton to confuse any would-be competitor attempting to pry into his trade secrets. Throughout the summer of 1840, Mitchell labored on the Turk’s restoration. 

Finally, in September, after many “amusing failures,” Mitchell completed his work and invited the club members to his cramped and crowded office to demonstrate the Automaton’s mysterious method of operation. For several months, Mitchell conducted private exhibitions for the friends and families of the shareholders. 

After providing the Automaton with office lodgings for nearly six months, the shareholders arranged to move it to a nearby museum on the northeast corner of 9th and Sansom streets, which had originally been constructed to house Charles Willson Peale’s famous museum. In 1840, however, it featured a collection of rare Chinese figurines. Once installed in its new home, the Automaton was placed inside a glass-fronted display case, which did much to preserve the working order of his machinery but little to attract an audience. 

On the night of July 5, 1854,  a fire broke out in the National Theater at the corner of 9th and Chestnut streets. The blaze spread rapidly to the adjoining buildings and leaped across the narrow alley that separated the theater from the museum.

When Mitchell’s son, alumnus and the “Father of Neurology” Silas Weir Mitchell, MD 1850, arrived on the scene, the fire was raging out of control. In a desperate attempt to rescue the Automaton, he braved the inferno with some of the firefighters. But they found the flame had already engulfed the Automaton.

S.W. Mitchell would later recall, “It might have been a sound from the crackling woodwork, or the breaking window-panes, but, certain it is, that we thought we heard, through the struggling flames, and above the din of outside thousands, the last words of our departed friend, the sternly whispered, oft-repeated syllables... ‘Echeque! Echeque!’”

Three years after the fire, S.W. Mitchell commemorated the loss of the Automaton by publishing an obituary for the Turk in The Chess Monthly, revealing for the first time its secret.

Like most magic, it was all sleight of hand. 

The Turk was in fact a mechanical illusion that allowed a human chess master hiding inside to operate the machine. The hidden player changed his position inside the cabinet to avoid detection, while the exhibitor opened the doors for inspection. Once inside, the player would remove a piece of lining in the cabinet to reveal a mounted chessboard, directly beneath the one seen by the spectators. Attached to the hidden chessboard were metal indicators which rose and fell according to the position of the opponent’s pieces. To execute the Turk’s moves, the player engaged a pantograph, which positioned the Automaton's mechanical arm over the playing board and operated its grasping hand. In the center of each square of the hidden chess board, a hole had been drilled to receive the point of the pantograph. By inserting this point into the desired location, the player could execute his moves without being in visual contact with the actual playing board. 

The earliest writer on the subject was Karl Gottlieb von Windisch, who witnessed the first exhibition of the Automaton in 1769. Though convinced that what he had seen was a trick, Windisch could not explain exactly how Baron von Kempelen had carried it out.

“Is it an illusion?” asked Windisch. “So be it. But it is, then, an illusion which does honor to the human mind.”