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Poe’s Investigations of a 19th-Century Automated Chess Machine – Part I

Charles Babbage’s First Automated Chess Machine on Display in the London Science Museum

Written By Murray Ellison  |  November 1st, 2017

Literary Historian, Gerald Kennedy writes, “In Poe’s writing career he worked… as a proofreader, editor, reviewer” of newspapers in Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York—the publishing centers of the United States” (64). These venues exposed his imaginative ideas to the largest possible audience available in the country in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Burton R. Pollin commented in 1973 at the Annual Convention of the Poe Society in Baltimore:

“Poe’s whole life was devoted to language-making. Early in his career as a poet, the niceties and refinements of words engaged his passionate devotion. He became a magazinist, as he honorifically called himself, in an age when the trend was ‘Magazine-ward,’ to use a Poe coinage; then he produced a stream of tales, reviews, essays, and lectures ( which belie the charges of sloth or negligence leveled at him by magazine proprietors…”

As a journalist, Poe’s attitude about science began to shift from an ambivalent position, as he expressed in his poetry, to a more supportive position. With a reporter’s access to the news, he often wrote enthusiastically about many of the exciting new developments or “treasures” of science.  However, it is often hard to determine whether he wrote favorably about science because he was impressed, or if his editors expected him to write positive reports. However, by writing about science as a journalist, he could have it both ways: he could report positively about science, but still keep his personal convictions concealed.

Poe’s first job a journalist began in 1835, when Thomas H. White hired him as a writer for the Southern Literary Messenger (SLM) in Richmond, Virginia. Poe biographer, Arthur Quinn writes that beginning with the December 1835 issue, “Poe did all of the editorial work without credit or title” (251). Burton Polin notes that it was due to Poe’s ability to write attention-grabbing horror and science-fiction stories like, “The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall” (an imaginary balloon voyage to the moon) “that helped to increase the SLM readership from five hundred, when he started, to thirty-five hundred in 1837—the year he resigned” (Collected Writings  62).

Poe’s first science-based journalism article, published in 1836, is about an “automated” chess machine, “Maelzel’s Chess-Player.” Poe demonstrates that he could not support Maelzel’s claims that the “automaton” could reason. He exposed the hoax of the “automated” chess player with creativity, using the tools he would employ in his later detective stories, and classical scientific research to conduct his inquiry.  According to Henry Margenau, Francis Bacon first defined the standards of experimental studies in the seventeenth century and they were closely followed by most professional scientists for several centuries. “Bacon offered scientist a fourfold rule of work: observe, measure, explain, and verify” (52). Although Poe often criticized Bacon and his followers, he was committed to the scientific inquiry methods proposed by Bacon in his journalistic reporting…

Poe observes and measures the machine’s capabilities. He rejects Maelzel’s implied claims that the “Player” was an “automaton.” He offers an alternative hypothesis. As Poe writes, “Perhaps no exhibition of the kind has ever elicited so general attention as the Chess-Player of Maelzel. Wherever seen it has been the object of intense curiosity, to all persons who think. The question of its modus operandi is still undetermined.” He is interested in launching an investigation because “we find everywhere men of mechanical genius…who make no scruple in pronouncing the Automaton a pure machine, unconnected with human agency in its movements” (Complete Works XIV 6). He asks readers to ponder the implications for the future if a machine could calculate without human input. He writes, “There is no analogy, whatever, between the operations of the chess-Player and those of the calculating machine of Mr. Babbage. If we chose to call the former a pure machine, we must be prepared to admit that it is, beyond comparison, the most wonderful invention of mankind”(9).  

Poe is referring to the prototypes of the “Difference Engine.” The machine was introduced in London between 1791 and 1789 by mechanical engineer Charles Babbage, who has been credited with having been the first inventor of the mechanical computer. His machine could solve complex polynomial equations (Isaacson 18). The Difference Engine No. 2 is a working model that has been restored and re-energized by modern engineers. (The photograph of the machine seen in this article courtesy of It is currently displayed in The London Science Museum ( Poe acknowledges that Babbage’s machine can compute when a human programmer controls and anticipates the possible outcomes and solves for the expected results. Poe argues that the “Player” would have to be “the most wonderful invention of mankind” to counter the moves of a human opponent. However, he is skeptical that the machine can do what Maelzel claimed.

In the December Poe Blog, read how Poe investigates and exposes the Richmond, Virginia exhibition of “Maelzel Automated Chess Player.”


Selected References

Isaacson, Walter. The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014.

Kennedy, Gerald. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Margenau, Henry. The Scientist. New York: Life Science Library, 1964.

Poe, Edgar A. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe Volume VIII: Early Criticism I. Ed. Harrison, James A. New York: T. Crowell, 1902.

—. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe Volume XIV: Essays and Miscellaneous. Ed. Harrison, James A. New York: T. Crowell, 1902.

—. The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Eds. Burton R. Pollin, and Joseph V. Ridgeley. New York: Gordian Press, 1997.

Pollin, Burton R. “Creator of Words.” Baltimore: Lecture delivered at the Fifty-first Annual Commemoration of the Edgar A. Poe Society, July 7, 1973. Web. 1 March 2015.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1998.

Websites: Published by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore

Click here for more information on Babbage’s ‘Difference Engine’

*This article is extracted from a discussion of Poe’s 1835 journalistic investigation, “Maelzel’s Chess Player, and is part of Murray Ellison’s VCU Master’s Thesis on Poe and Nineteenth-Century © 2015.

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