K is for Wolfgang von Kempelen

This is my contribution to Round Thirteen of ABC Wednesday. I am focusing on people for the fourth time, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, although I am worried that I may have exhausted some letters of the alphabet, but I’ll see how it goes!
Wolfgang von Kempelen

Wolfgang von Kempelen

Wolfgang von Kempelen was a philosopher, polyglot, mathematician and author, but above all else he was one of the best of those remarkable inventors of automata in the 18th century, one of which baffled the likes of Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin.

Kempelen was born in 1734 in Pressburg, Hungary, or what is now Bratislava, Slovakia. He studied law and philosophy in his birthplace, and then in Győr, Vienna and Rome.

He spoke German, Hungarian, Latin, French, Italian, and later English and he was a talented artist, although you might not think so judging from the sketched self-portrait above.

Kempelen's Speaking Machine

Kempelen’s Speaking Machine

But it was as an inventor that he excelled and some of his work was ground-breaking.  Kratzenstein of Copenhagen made the first attempt to recreate the human voice mechanically using organ pipes in 1773, but it is Kempelen who is considered the first experimental phonetician.

He created a machine capable of synthesising human sounds which he developed for therapeutic purposes in 1791 and you can see it demonstrated on YouTube.

Kempelen’s also constructed steam-engines, waterpumps, a steam turbine for mills and the famous fountains at Schönbrunn in Vienna, as well as a typewriter for the blind Viennese pianist Maria Theresia von Paradis.

Wonderful though these inventions were, the one for which he is best remembered is The Turk, his chess playing automaton that he constructed in 1770.

The Turk

The Turk

Kempelen built it to impress the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and you can see from the illustration on the left that it consisted of a mechanical figure dressed in mysterious garb and it could take on all comers.

It could also perform chess tricks, like the knight’s tour puzzle in which it would move a knight around the board to occupy every square just once. But it was in fact a very clever hoax.

Although The Turk was indeed mechanised, it was operated from inside by a chess master who made The Turk’s moves for him. It may seem that there was very little space for someone to hide, but it was actually quite roomy and the operator could see the moves being made through the semi-transparent board above.

But as a hoax it was a very good one that wasn’t exposed for over half a century and in all it toured Europe and America for eighty years, fooling the likes of Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin along the way.

Kempelen himself died in poverty in 1804 after the Austrian emperor withdrew his patronage and his machine passed through various hands until it was destroyed in a fire at the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia in 1854, just a few years before Edgar Allan Poe published his fictional ‘Von Kempelen and His Discovery‘, a hoax in itself.

You can read much more about Kempelen’s invention on Wikipedia, but below is a film of the version reconstructed in 1984 at a cost of $120,000.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

3 comments… Add yours
  • Leslie 25th September 2013

    Fascinating man! He lived just at the right time for the Industrial Revolution.

    abcw team

  • Joy 25th September 2013

    Automaton are endlessly fascinating, such clever machinery, and what a hoax.
    Joy – ABC Team

  • Roger Green 25th September 2013

    Impressive character!
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team


Your email will not be published on this site, but note that this and any other personal data you choose to share is stored here. Please see the Privacy Policy for more information.

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: