Many late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Europeans knew of Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734–1804) as a mechanician employed at the Court of the Holy Roman Empire in Vienna. He was this in fact and perhaps also in spirit, but not in name or in substance. For he did not hold the title of K.-K. Hofmechaniker—Knauss had that—but the title of K.-K. Hofrat (Imperial and Royal Court Councillor) and his principal occupation consisted of helping to administer the Hungarian portion of the polyglot Hapsburg empire. Equally polyglot himself, Kempelen spoke Latin, German, Magyar, French, Italian, English, Romanian, and one or more Slavic languages. His official duties included such things as translating Empress Maria Theresa’s legal code from Latin into German, supervising the operation of the Hungarian salt mines, directing the construction of a royal palace in Ofen (now Budapest), and organizing a campaign against brigandage in Hungary. When he was not engaged in state business he was likely to be writing drama or poetry or painting landscapes. In his spare time he was a mechanician.
Nevertheless, despite Kempelen’s status as a senior official in the Hungarian government, despite the production of his plays at the Hoftheater (Court Theater), and despite his membership in the Akademie Bildender Künstler (Academy of Pictorial Artists), the substantial fame that descended upon him in the 1780s and what little of it that has survived came to him through his mechanical inventions.
His potentially very useful printing press for the blind gained him little attention. The eighteenth century saw the beginnings of mass literacy in Western Europe, but the blind were left behind. Touched in particular by the plight of a sightless musician of his acquaintance who had already devised a system of musical notation for herself, Kempelen designed a press that printed German Fraktur type in relief and had it built for her. Louis Braille did not develop his more efficient system of patterns of raised dots until 1829.
Kempelen’s civil engineering projects contributed more to the advancement of his career than to making his name known in the wider world. Ever since the Renaissance, European princes great and small had adorned their palace grounds with fountains, engaging in a low-pressure competition in which each sought to dampen the splendor of his rivals by making his own jets and cascades more impressive than theirs. Kempelen stepped into a waterfall project on the grounds of the palace at Schönbrunn (pretty spring), the Austrian monarchy’s response to Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles, and devised a recycling apparatus for it. The falling water turned a wheel, which drove pumps that returned the fallen water back to the top of the falls. A contemporary praised the system to the skies, calling it “one of the most important and extraordinary inventions of this century” and describing it as if it were a kind of perpetual motion machine.
Kempelen also tinkered with the new steam engine, known to his compatriots as the englische Feuermaschine (English fire machine). He constructed one that was used successfully to help dig canals in Hungary. He constructed another, it was reported, that he “started up, and it did what K. intended it to do, but only for a few minutes, and then broke down or exploded, which sounds a bit like a fairy tale.”
In 1769 there appeared in Vienna a Frenchman named Pelletier, probably the same Pelletier who later in Paris operated a small museum of scientific curiosities containing an automaton galoubet player. He performed before the Imperial and Royal Court some tricks that depended on magnetism, which seem to have impressed Empress Maria Theresa but not Kempelen, who was also present. Kempelen boasted to the empress that he could create something far more impressive, and she encouraged him to do so. Six months later he produced his Chess Player.
The Chess Player was a life-size sculpture of a man dressed as a Turk, or at least as the Western stereotype of a Turk, complete with turban, drooping moustache, and flowing robe, and holding in his left hand a two-foot-long pipe. He sat in permanence behind a cabinet approximately four feet wide, two and a half feet deep, and three feet high, which rested on four casters and had a chessboard fixed to the top. The side of the cabinet facing the spectators had built into it at the bottom a shallow drawer that was almost as wide as the cabinet itself, and above the drawer two doors of equal height but of unequal width, corresponding to a larger compartment on the right and a smaller one on the left; on the opposite, that is the Turk’s, side of the cabinet, there were two more doors, one to his right and one to his left. Kempelen developed a ritual of presentation: He wheeled the Turk-and-cabinet into the room; opened and closed the doors of the cabinet in turn, showing that the smaller compartment contained a mass of machinery while the larger compartment contained much less of it; pulled out the drawer, extracted a set of chessmen and a cushion, and pushed it in again; wheeled the cabinet around, lifted the robe of the Turk to reveal the machinery in his incompletely enclosed body and wheeled the cabinet back again; removed the pipe from the Turk’s playing hand, placed the cushion under that hand’s arm, and set up the chessmen.
Like a spring-driven clock, the Chess Player’s mechanism had to be periodically wound up, after which it functioned by itself. The Turk raised his arm, extended it over the board, grasped a piece with his hand, and moved it to a new square. He waited for his opponent to move before moving again, nodded his head twice to indicate a check to his opponent’s queen, three times for a check to the king, and shook his head when his opponent made an illegal move. He always played first and usually won. Sometimes when he closed his hand while reaching for a piece he failed to grasp it, if it was not precisely in the middle of the square, but he moved his arm anyway as if he held it, opening his hand again over the destination square. In such cases the Turk’s intention was clear and Kempelen intervened to move the piece. Otherwise the creator kept himself stationed several paces away, standing at a little side table and looking secretively into a small box placed there, except when he had to rewind the machinery.
The empress congratulated him on making good on his boast, and the entire court expressed its admiration. Kempelen first began to show the Chess Player in Vienna and then at his home in Pressburg (now Bratislava), attracting a certain amount of attention, in 1769. Several newspapers, including the Mercure de France, ran reports, and several speculators wanted to buy the piece. Kempelen judged his own creation as “not without merit as regards the mechanism, the effects of which, however, appear so marvelous only because of the boldness of the conception and because of the fortuitous choice of means that are used to create the illusion.”  His interest in it gradually declined, and after a few years of increasingly infrequent exhibitions he partially disassembled it and put it into storage.
The piece that he considered his masterpiece, or at least his greatest contribution to knowledge, was his speaking machine. Curiously, three mechanicians working independently constructed speaking machines almost simultaneously: Kempelen in 1778, a Kratzenstein of Copenhagen in 1780, and Abbé Mical in 1778. Mical, the same Parisian who had previously built automaton flute players, gave his two speaking machines human form, or, to be exact, heads. These talking heads alternately spoke several sentences flattering to the king in clearly comprehensible French. The royalist journalist Antoine Rivarol heaped praise on them. He argued that the proliferation of such heads would preserve the perfect spoken French of the eighteenth century for all time and prevent its degradation by epigones. When Kempelen brought his speaking machine to Paris in 1783, Rivarol reported, “M. Kempelen also had a box from which a few words escaped, it is said; but this worthy traveler paid true homage to M. the Abbé Mical: As soon as he learned of the talking heads, he withdrew.” Another Paris observer, however, judged the talking heads inferior: “Their pronunciation is not by some distance as clear, as distinct, as that of M. de Kempelen’s machine.” Kempelen, too, had planned to bestow a head on his speaking machine, but it seems always to have remained a bare assembly of wires, hinges, tubes, reeds, funnels, and bellows, sometimes covered with a cloth. He was able to make it say several hundred individual words and a few whole sentences. Kempelen’s anatomie mouvante formed a part of his linguistic researches, the results of which he published in a book entitled Wolfgangs von Kempelen Mechanismus der menschlichen Sprache nebst der Beschreibung seiner sprechenden Maschine (Wolfgang von Kempelen’s Mechanism of Human Speech Together with a Description of His Speaking Machine, 1791). His twofold aim was to identify the phonemes of the European languages and to determine how human beings produce those sounds, by specifying the contributions of the lungs, windpipe, vocal cords, glottis, nose, tongue, teeth, lips, etc.
In 1782, while still occupied with his speaking machine, at least in the intervals between his official responsibilities and his artistic relaxations, Kempelen was induced by Emperor Joseph II to resuscitate his Chess Player. The absolute monarch of Austria was expecting a visit from the next absolute monarch of Russia and his wife and wanted to prevent their boredom from becoming absolute. The Turk enchanted the foreign dignitaries to such a degree that they insisted his maker take him on a tour of Europe and prevailed upon Emperor Joseph to decree a leave of absence. The obedient Kempelen accompanied both Chess Player and speaking machine to Paris.
A pamphlet first published in German in 1783 heralded the start of the Turk’s tour that same year; French, English, and Dutch editions of 1783, 1784, and 1785, respectively, marked his triumphal progress. Written by a friend of Kempelen, the pamphlet described what the Turk did, how Kempelen came to create him, and gave a sketch of his life. Thus spurted the first few drops of what was to become a recycling fountain of ink, lasting well into the nineteenth century and staining a multitude of private and public letters, newspaper and magazine articles, and opuscules of every sort, all devoted to explaining the secret of the Turk’s abilities, a secret known to almost none of the authors.
Hence when the Turk arrived in Paris, his first destination, the literate public was already well informed about him. As for the Turk, he knew enough to find his way to the Café de la Régence. The attorney Bernard, who was to become Philidor’s successor as champion and already a leading player, defeated the Turk after a long and difficult game. Bernard rated his skill equal to that of the marquis de Ximenès, at which the latter took offense, not liking to be compared to a literal blockhead. Philidor also defeated the Turk, at an exhibition in front of the Académie Royale des Sciences. Kempelen is reported to have approached the champion beforehand in private to ask him to let the Turk win, so as not to jeopardize the success of the tour. Philidor agreed in principle but told Kempelen that it was in both their interests that he maintain a certain level of play; otherwise, suspicions would be aroused. The consensus of the spectators was that Philidor won in spite of playing below his usual level. He often said afterward that this game had fatigued him more than any other.
The Turk enjoyed Paris in the spring of 1783 and then crossed to London in the late summer or fall. The recent revelation that he was not a player of the top rank did not seem to affect his reputation or his ability to attract attention. Returning to the continent in 1784, he gave exhibitions in Leipzig, Dresden, several towns in southern Germany, Amsterdam, and probably many other places. He retired to Pressburg in 1785, while the letters, articles, and pamphlets continued to gush forth unabated.
After having extended a leave of six months into two years, Kempelen returned to government service and worked until 1798, when he too retired. But he did not cease to set up his easel in the countryside and paint landscapes, since he continued to be able to see perfectly without glasses. He died in 1804 at the age of seventy without having let the world see the secret of his Chess Player.
The purposes behind Kempelen’s mechanical inventions seem to have been almost as various as the inventions themselves. Simple benevolence undoubtedly motivated in large part his invention of type for the blind. The speaking machine grew out of his interest in linguistics, and he intended it to be a contribution to science. The personal satisfaction of meeting challenges to his ingenuity probably also encouraged him in both projects. His adaptation of the steam engine was done for the utilitarian, even mundane purpose of digging canals. His purpose in this case was the government’s, or the monarchy’s, which was appropriate to him as a royal servant. The recycling waterfall of Schönbrunn he likewise conceived in his role as servant of the monarchy. The Chess Player as well he invented to impress his sovereign, and its accomplishment of that aim was what brought about its tour of Europe, its fame, and his.