A Turkish Get-Up

By | March 25, 2016

As drupa looms on the horizon, vendors large and small are announcing new printing equipment with amazing new capabilities. In a weird way, I am reminded of an episode of the original Mission: Impossible called “The Money Machine” (1967) which featured a machine that ostensibly went from white-paper-in to green-money-out. However, the machine was actually a ruse to catch a counterfeiter. Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) and his IM force presented the counterfeiter with the titular machine that supposedly printed real money. However, it was not a real printing press, and instead of an imaging system, it had Barney Collier (Greg Morris) crouching inside feeding preprinted banknotes through the output slot. Whenever I see a demo of a new press, I am always tempted to check to see if there isn’t just someone inside sliding preprinted sheets out. I suspect this is just me.

Secreting people inside machines is actually a not unknown ploy; conversely, the idea of making machines look and behave like people goes back millennia.

The word “robot” was coined in 1920 by—as any crossword puzzle aficionado can tell you—Czech playwright and novelist Karel Čapek in his science-fiction play R.U.R., an acronym for “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” Čapek took the word from the Czech robotnik which means “slave.” Although we may think that robots and automatons are a product of relatively recent science fiction, they actually date as far back as ancient China.

King Mu of the Zhou Dynasty, who ruled from 976 to 922 B.C., one day found himself in the presence of Yan Shi, referred to as an “artificer,” although “mechanical engineer” is closer to what he’d be called today. This artificer demonstrated to the emperor what was essentially a life-size humanoid automaton. According to an account described in the Liezi, a collection of writings of 5th-century B.C. Taoist philosopher Lie Yukou, this automaton could walk, move its head, and even sing. The king was impressed. However, the machine supposedly began winking and leering at the young ladies in attendance, and the emperor threatened to have Yan Shi executed. Oopsie. Panicked, the artificer is said to have disassembled the automaton to show the king what it was made of.

[I]t turned out to be only a construction of leather, wood, glue and lacquer, variously colored white, black, red and blue. Examining it closely, the king found all the internal organs complete—liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines; and over these again, muscles, bones and limbs with their joints, skin, teeth and hair, all of them artificial… The king tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth could no longer speak; he took away the liver and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys and the legs lost their power of locomotion (Liezie, via Cox, 2014).

One wonders if the story wasn’t embellished just a tad, but in any event, it does sound like something we’d like to do to people who get similarly out of hand at parties.

Anyway, kidneys intact, we’re able to walk on to ancient Greece, where the 4th-century B.C. mathematician Archytas of Tarentum invented a wooden, steam-powered bird he called “The Pigeon.” It was said to be able to fly as far as 200 feet before (literally) running out of steam. (Fortunately, The Pigeon never went into mass production or all those Greek statues may not have survived the centuries so pristine and intact.) A couple hundred years later, inventor and mathematician Ctesibius (285–222 B.C.) drew on his study of pneumatics and hydraulics to invent a water clock that featured moving figures. Another couple centuries later, Hero of Alexandria (10–70 A.D.) made a variety of automated machines powered by air pressure, steam, and water.

The rediscovery and dissemination of ancient Greek texts during the European Renaissance—thanks largely to the invention of the printing press—kicked off a lot interest in automata of various kinds. In the 1490s, Leonardo da Vinci drew up plans for a humanoid robot derived from his studies and drawings of Vitruvian Man, although there is no evidence he tried to actually build it. In the 1730s, French inventor and artist Jacques de Vaucanson demonstrated several automatons: a flute player, a pipe player, and a duck (sing along now, “one of these things is not like the other…”).

About the mechanical duck (aka the “Canard Digérateur” or “Digesting Duck”): it could flap its wings and move its neck. More remarkably, it could eat food from its exhibitor’s hand and swallow it, and, even more remarkably—if disgustingly—could excrete it. Remarked Voltaire sarcastically (his language, not mine), “without the shitting duck of Vaucanson, you will have nothing to remind you of the glory of France” (Santoso, 2012).

Yes, it was a bit gross (and preceded the equally disturbing Betsy-Wetsy doll by about two centuries), but was pretty complicated for the 18th century:

Vaucanson gave details of the duck’s insides: not only was the grain, once swallowed, conducted via tubes to the animal’s stomach, but Vaucanson had also had to install a “chemical laboratory” to decompose it. It passed from there into the “bowels, then to the anus, where there is a sphincter which permits it to emerge” (Wood, 2002).

The Digesting Duck certainly appealed to novelist Thomas Pynchon, who made it (or an exaggerated version of it) a character in his historical novel Mason & Dixon.

(By the way, Vaucanson also invented the first automated loom which, in 1801, would be improved upon by Joseph Marie Jacquard, whose Jacquard loom used “punch cards” to control the pattern the machine wove. Herman Hollerith would later borrow the principle of these punch cards to store and tabulate data for the 1890 U.S. Census. Charles Babbage also adapted the Jacquard punch cards for his Analytical engine. It will not come as a surprise that modern computing perhaps owes its existence to a defecating duck. Some days, that just seems apt.)

In 1836, in an article for the Southern Literary Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe discussed at length such automata as Vaucanson’s duck, as well as another “automaton” that he had recently seen demonstrated: the Chess-Player of Maelzel. As he remarks in a sentence that makes the head spin a bit:

[A] machine such as we have described [Vaucanson’s duck] is altogether above comparison with the Chess-Player of Maelzel. By no means—it is altogether beneath it—that is to say provided we assume (what should never for a moment be assumed) that the Chess-Player is a pure machine, and performs its operations without any immediate human agency (Poe, 1836).

Let’s back up a second. The Chess-Player of Maelzel to which Poe is referring was called The Turk (or The Mechanical Turk, not to be confused with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk “marketplace for work”). It was invented in 1770 by Hungarian author and inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734–1804) and was a mechanical chess-playing machine, sort of the Deep Blue of its day. It had a chessboard atop a large wooden cabinet—which was filled with gears and other mechanical contrivances—and seated behind the chessboard was an intimidating, be-turbaned, Turkish-looking mannequin which also had working arms that moved the chess pieces. Invented to “impress the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria” (says Wikipedia, with a little bit of what I imagine is inadvertent wordplay), the Turk was toured around Europe and the Americas for 80-plus years, beating nearly all of its challengers, including a 1783 Paris match with Benjamin Franklin, who had been serving as U.S. Minister to France. Franklin lost.

The Turk, a copper engraving believed to have been made by Kempelen himself.

The Turk, a copper engraving believed to have been made by Kempelen himself.

Kempelen died in 1804, and his son sold The Turk to Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, a Bavarian musician and machine tinkerer; Maelzel fixed up the Turk and took it back on the road for a sort of “world tour.”

In 1809, the Turk played and beat Napoléon Bonaparte. According to reports—many of which are contradictory—Napoléon tried to cheat repeatedly, and the Turk ended up getting annoyed and sweeping all the pieces off the board. Odd behavior for a machine…

Or is it? In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the Turk won so many of its matches: it wasn’t actually a machine at all. The Turk’s big secret—and it was an amazingly well-kept secret for decades—was that, hidden inside it, was an actual human chess master. In fact, over the years, more than half a dozen world chess masters secretly kept up The Turk’s façade as a chess-playing machine. In other words, the Turk was hoax. This is why all the attempts to explain how it worked—including Poe’s, although he kind of hinted at it—were inevitably wrong.

Alas, The Turk “died” in a fire in 1850 (no, there was no one in it at the time) and its owner felt that there was no longer any reason to keep the secret, so let the cat out of the bag (or the chess master out of the Turk, perhaps) in a series of articles in The Chess Monthly.

So perhaps when we see new machines and technologies in action, it might be worth a look inside. Just in case.



Gunther Cox, “A History of Robotics: Yan Shi the Artificer,” Salvius, January 20, 2014, http://blog.salvius.org/2014/01/a-history-of-robotics-yan-shi-artificer.html.

Daven Hiskey, “The First Robot, Created in 400 BCE, Was A Steam-Powered Pigeon,” Mental Floss, November 14, 2012, http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/151575.

Edgar Allan Poe, “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” The Southern Literary Messenger, April 1836, via The Portable Poe, New York: Penguin Books, 1973, pp. 508–537.

Alex Santoso, “The Pooping Duck Automaton,” Neatorama, Tuesday, August 7, 2012, http://www.neatorama.com/2012/08/07/The-Pooping-Duck-Automaton/.

Gaby Wood, “Living Dolls: A Magical History Of The Quest For Mechanical Life,” The Guardian, February 15, 2002, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/feb/16/extract.gabywood.

“Robot,” Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=robot.

“Robot,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 5, 2016, retrieved March 9, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot.

“The Turk,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 12, 2016, retrieved March 9, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turk.

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