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The Poe & Science Series

Poe Exposes Maelzel’s Automated Chess Player, Part II

Murray Ellison | Dec. 2nd, 2017

Original Illustration Published in Poe’s “Automated Chess-Player”

In 1836, Poe asks readers of the Richmond-based Southern Literary Messenger 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,” Poe argues.  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,” referring to the prototypes of the “Difference Engine,” which was introduced in London between 1789 and 1791 by mechanical engineer Charles Babbage. He has been credited with having been the first inventor of the mechanical computer. His machine could solve complex polynomial equations (Isaacson).  Poe acknowledges that Babbage’s machine can compute when a programmer controls and anticipates the possible outcomes and solves for the expected results. He argues that the automated chess “Player” would have to be “the most wonderful invention of mankind” to counter the moves of a human opponent, and remains skeptical that the machine can do what Maelzel claimed.

Poe’s report begins with the historical background of the machine. The “chess-player” was invented in 1769 by Wolfgang von Kempelen, who took it to European cities beginning in 1804. It was later purchased by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who was also an early inventor of the automatic music player. Maelzel exhibited the chess-player in European cities and first demonstrated it in the “principal towns” of the United States in 1821. Poe writes: “Baron Kempelen had no scruple in declaring it to be a very ordinary piece of mechanism.” It was “a bagatelle whose effects appeared so marvelous only from the boldness of conception, and the fortunate choices of the methods adopted for promoting the illusion.”

Poe was most concerned that in the publicity about the machine, Maelzel made implicit claims that the “automaton” had the intelligence to regulate its moves. Instead, he proposes an alternative hypothesis: “It is quite certain that the operations of the Automaton are regulated by mind, and by nothing else.” He offers the central research issue for his investigation: “The only question then is of the manner in which human agency is brought to bear. He reasons that any machine created by man could act only in a mathematical or systematic way. The machine, he states, would need to respond to the data it had received within a given set of expected outcomes. Poe’s main argument is that he believes that it would be inconceivable for a machine to anticipate the almost infinite number of possible complex chess moves needed to counter a human opponent.  

After reviewing the previous theories about the “automaton,” he concludes that none of them has revealed how the machine makes chess moves. Poe either has not see or has chosen to omit news reports in other cities where the automaton was exposed as a fraud. Nevertheless, to confirm his own conclusion, he makes several visits to the exhibit in Richmond and writes, “Maelzel displays the inside of the machine to prove his point. Its whole interior is crowded with wheels, pinions, levers, and other machinery so that the eyes cannot penetrate but a little distance into the mass.” He observes that Maelzel adds to the intrigue by opening only one of the three doors at a time, opening the front doors of the machine at one time and the back doors at another (see illustration from Poe’s published article on the automaton). Poe describes how the audience reacts to Maelzel’s deceptions:

“In general, every spectator is now thoroughly satisfied of having beheld and completely scrutinized, at one and the same time, every portion of the Automaton, and the idea of any person being concealed in the interior if ever entertained is immediately dismissed as preposterous in the extreme.”

Poe writes that Maelzel’s efforts to demonstrate that no one is inside of the console are designed to support the validity of his claim that the machine reasons according to its artificial intelligence or programming. He emphasizes that that he is not deceived by Maelzel’s illusions. He makes several additional visits to the exhibition to investigate how the machine operates. Poe derives the conclusion that Maelzel was not regulating the board because his back was always turned away from the machine when the machine was making its moves. Maelzel turned around and opened doors in the front and back of the machine in an attempt to give the illusion that no one could be inside of the machine. However, Poe observes that the interio is not fully visible when Maelzel opened any one of the doors. He also reveals that the machine employs concealed mirrors to aid in the deception. He describes Maelzel’s distractive tactics: A chess move is made by the mechanical manipulation of a small concealed man inside of the machine, who controls a “Turk” constructed as a robot. Poe adds: When asked, Maelzel declined to comment on how his automaton worked. Poe concludes that, “We do not believe that any reasonable objection can be urged against this solution of the Automaton Chess-Player.”

Poe’s investigative report demonstrated that he was, from the beginning of his career, interested in exploring technical challenges that required creativity and scientific inquiry. His exposé showed that he was also interested in exploring the boundaries between scientific news and fiction. In addition, he wanted to challenge unrealistic claims of those he was investigating and debunking their myths. The ways that he defined the issues and proposed solutions in “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” according to Pollin, foreshadowed the scientific methods he established in his later tales of ratiocination. Neil Harris argues that Poe “uncovered the secret of Maelzel’s automatic chess player, and so broke down an illusion with as much skill as he used to create one.” Poe also concluded that the public could be deceived by almost any spectacular false notion supported by circumstantial facts. What appeared to be certainly true, could also be untrue. This story also revealed that Poe had the insight to ask the important question concerning the future, such as: What would the future be like if machines could think? Would automation be an advantage or disadvantage in the future?

In the next Poe and Science, I plan to write about Poe’s published articles on Phrenology.

**This article is extracted from discussion of Poe’s 1836 journalistic investigation, “Maelzel’s Chess Player,” and is part of Murray Ellison’s VCU Master’s Thesis on Poe and the Nineteenth-Century © 2015.

Selected References – Print

Harris, Neil. Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.

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.

Selected References – Web

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