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VI международная конференция
Россия, Нижний Новгород, НИУ ВШЭ, 25–27 сентября 2023 года

Wolfgang von Kempelen and the illusionistic imitations of the body

On November 21, 1781, the Russian Grand Duke, heir to the throne Paul and his wife Maria Feodorovna, arrived in Vienna. Among many social events, a demonstration of an “admirable machine where a Turk plays chess” took place in the rooms of Vienna Castle, which the designer of this most idiosyncratic machine, Wolfgang von Kempelen, lived temporarily. The attendees were thrilled by the demonstration because the machine won all chess games. A machine, made up and built as a chess-playing Turk, as an organized body with thinking ability, born from the vision of producing an android machine. The clockwork, the precision mechanics of a chronological sequence, as the technical vision of a self-learning process. This machine was not just an illustration of a human organism, it was also a sign of the superiority of an enlightened person to create something independent. It therefore gave the creator a proud awareness, dignity and strength. But it also created the illusion of the living for a curious and entertaining addicted audience. “Among the abilities of mind and hand of man, juggling and fun works are by no means to be underestimated. Because some of them, even if they are intended for easy and playful use, can still be of information value.”These words Francis Bacon wrote in his "Novum Organum scientiarum" already in 1620 about creative games and developments. The fundamental importance of game as a conception of human art and knowledge. Nature would also have its metamorphoses, from which new things develop. The human mind only follows the free, playful nature and thereby gains knowledge, understands the essentials, and leaves no choice in new creation. The game as center of a research and learning society, where principles of nature are imitated, and new, artificial things are created. And the android fulfilled the expectations. The mechanics of this creation showed an amazing rationalization of movements. Human skills, especially those of independent thinking, were taken up and formed a basis for further developments and updates in coming centuries. But Kempelen, an ingenious mechanic, however, created another machine that he had worked on for years, namely a speaking machine, which he presented experts on a Grand Tour through Europe between 1783/84. In this development he dealt with the generation of the human voice in long and tiresome studies. Finally he implemented his knowledge in a clear, purely mechanical shape. In contrast to the Turk, its shape was no longer anthropomorphic, although he originally intended to give it the shape of a child. In 1791 he published his theoretical studies on this speaking machine in his book “Mechanismus der menschlichen Sprache”. In it, he encouraged future generations of readers and researchers, to develop his machine and carry on with his studies. History of technology therefore assigned Kempelen a special place in the history of phonetics due to the efforts. As for the Chess Turk, we know that it could not play chess games on his own. Oddly enough, it still inspires our imagination and phantasy. 

I. Prefase

The arrival of this celebrated Androides was anticipated in this country with much interest. It has now been exhibited some months, and abundantly answered the expectations of the curious. Many theories have been framed to account forits operation, but all are attended with serious difficulties, and though many believe themselves who have discovered the secret, the reare few who would not feel better satisfied by ocular demonstration. With this introduction begins a detailed description of a chess-playing machine, which was still the main attraction in a panopticon among mechanical dolls and music machines. The author of this description, published in Boston in 1826, Gamaliel Bradford, then added the sentence “Inclusi ligno occultantur Achivi” from Virgil's Aeneas after the title, which, completed, referred to the ruse of the Greeks who, hidden in a wooden horse, conquered and destroyed Troya victoriously, which, for connoisseurs of ancient literature drew attention to the illusions on the daily public shows in the town. 

A human-like being, creating an android, moving independently, solving tasks and doing tasks independently, has been a vision that has long occupied mankind. A likeness with a perfect, human-like physique, facial features, possibly with a human personality, hardly distinguishable from his role model. But: the more similar the artificial man became in his development to the human model, one felt this artificial being either - culturally - as a sympathy bearer, or else – and for the most part – as scary and terrifying, which led to the rejection of this artificiality. The rejection, triggered by mechanisms in certain regions of the human brain, was only discovered by researchers in the 1970s and was known as the “Uncanny Valley”. One explanation for the non-acceptance of anthropomorphism could be that an android is classified as an intermediate between the clearly recognizable machine and the clearly recognizable human 

being. Intuitively, humans grasp their kinds because they measure with the same standards, while an android claims to be human. The perfection of humanization leads to an emotional reaction of non-acceptance. Advantage becomes disadvantage. 

This reaction of rejection also explained the outcome of the often miraculous stories about scholars created androids and their destruction in the dawn and in the Middle Ages, where especially these mechanical inventions were condemned as devil’s work. 

Man’s need to create his own image was the driving force behind finding out how far he could go. Constant curiosity was part of it and a portion of selfishness and inventiveness – to go beyond, see what’s behind, explore how far one can go, pushing oneself to the limit. Because what a divine power can do, man can as well: the production of self-moving, obedient things and beings: „Full twenty tripods for his hall he fram’d, / That, plac’d on living wheel sofmassy gold, / Wond’ rous to tell, instinct with spirit roll’d / From place to place around the blestabodes, / Self-mov’d, obedient to the beck of gods.“ The lines from Homer’s “Iliad” inspired human mind: I can do that too! 

The human ingenuity was very successful in this. Initially, it were mobile images of gods in ancient places of worship that spoke to those seeking advice and communicated to them through movements. To pour God into a human form in order to make the incomprehensible understandable and to be close to this all-encompassing supernatural power. However: a soul in the statue was required, because from an early age onwards, divine support including emotional care was required. Communication was important, the dialogue, the figure should show compassion and, warn of dangers. The simpler and more striking the images of the gods, the more successful business-loving and artful priests enjoyed these often easy-to-understand handheld tricks. Nobody asked about ethical boundaries here, the result and what was experienced mattered. Simply: being close to the deity trusting in his words. 

Although the Middle Ages were a dark chapter in terms of technical developments in Europe and a lot of knowledge lost or forbidden by nearsightedness and narrow-mindedness – exposed to be “magic”–  this ancient technical knowledge survived in the Arab world. Here it was comprehensively taken up, improved and expanded by scholars. This included, inevitable for the mechanical division, the construction of clockworks and automatons. Artful and complicated mechanisms were soon created, the message of which slowly spread across Europe after the turn of the millennium. These findings and manufacturing techniques fell on fertile ground for technically curious and eager to learn. 

As late as the 17th century, John Wilkins described Daedalus “to be one of the first and most famous amongst the ancients, for his skill in making automata or self-moving engines.” Heron of Alexandria's writings, which have survived only in fragments, have been translated and inspired subsequent generations of future mechanics, technicians and engineers.

II.A new highlight in the 18th century: the human-machine

Even at the beginning of the 18th century, the destruction of an legendary artificial man, android, created by Albertus Magnus by one of his brethren was regretted because the destroyer “had no idea about physics and mechanics. ”Knowledge of metaphysics is not sufficient for such an art! Ratio prevailed in the Age of Enlightenment and the way to success was paved for the illusion of an autonomous movement in this century. When Jaques de Vaucanson created his “Flute Player” in 1738 and presented it to the public, he received great attention and became a role model for a number of mechanics for the next decades. Wolfgang von Kempelen included. 

Years earlier, a copperplate engraving by Charles-Nicolas Cochin “La charmante catin” (1731) pointed to the new era of machine construction, suggesting great things. The copper engraving represents an illustrious crowd of spectators, consisting mainly of women, grouped around a self-moving doll. The small doll, driven by precision mechanics and moving towards the viewer of the engraving, is partially illuminated by flickering candlelight. The faces of the salon society are astonished to amused, stunned to the point of terror. The latter is drastically underpinned by the woman in the foreground, who has spread her arms, falling fainting on her knees. The little android, like the ladies around her, is fashionably dressed, wears a ruffled hood on her hair and holds a shawl over her chest with her right hand. It attracts everyone's attention, it dominates the scene. However, the sentence below the graphic makes one think. The machine is equated with a courtesan “catin”, which can be bought and controlled. 

Around 1759, a similar graphic by Noël Le Mire with the same title was printed and published. This time it shows a distinguished lady with a little girl sitting on her lap and a second adult woman opposite them. All three people are fascinated by an android that moves between them. The little girl and the lady sitting opposite point to this little mechanical figure with their outstretched arms. This android is dressed like the ladies and it seems that it moves just like the human role models. But an open wooden box with a kind of crank on the narrow side on the right in the foreground seems to be the container to represent the android's apartment. Which shows the difference to the dwelling of “real people”, because they live in a magnificent house, which can be seen in the background. Below the graphic the saying: “Quand je marche, et fait les beaux bras, / Tourne la téte avec des mines: / Telles, qui ne s'en doutent pas, / Ne sont comme moi que machines.”

This saying symbolizes the fascination and at the same time that it is difficult for the onlookingspectator to distinguish a person from an android. Clothing, posture, the movement of arms and legs, the facial expressions were amazingly similar, just lifelike. The androids mastered all of this. But: some people might also act as machines as the android did. Ponting out the new chapter openly discussed, if the human body only works like a precise clockwork and exquisite mechanics? Man is working like a machine. 

But there was another sensual aspect important: the sense of touch! The surface of a stone sculpture felt cold. Therefore it had no soul. This resulted in the Creator's desire to create something soulful, something living, human-like, as we have been told in the story of Pygmalion. The sculpture is brought to life, the breath of life is blown in. 

Now there were two motifs in this way of thinking that required two different types of creators. Other experts had to develop from the former artist, namely the mechanics and engineers. The so-called “Chambers of Art and Wonders” were built around these two aspects. Ancient art and modern technology mutually reflected their power and independence. The collector and his passion spurred many an alert mind. Theoretical foundations were expanded, the mastery of nature was expanded by the component “mechanics”. The innate curiosity of human beings gave rise to structures which became more and more human-like, which showed human abilities. That meant training eyes and minds, because the goal was to recognize similarities, to separate dissimilarities and to recognize the results as an image of nature. 

These special chambers were also an area that left enough space for the idea of free game. The human mind was able to imitate the varieties of nature, hold onto them, change them again and again, and let his imagination run wild. Limits were also shown here, despite many utopias. The ideally typical art chamber was a laboratory, a demonstration room, where the natural sciences and humanities came together from a mechanical, alchemical and empirical point of view. And so a game begins in the practice of various techniques, mechanics, the drawing of complicated mechanical processes, abstruse machines and devices, calculations of statics, perspective, architecture and painting and the like. The playing person, homo ludens, the game as a basic category of human behavior. Because in the game there is pure pleasure, lust and freedom, but also basic research, purpose and use. Never forget that man has reason. The game as a creative act, as a divine germ in humans, namely to produce something himself. Included: the competition with like-minded people. 

The triumphal march of creating useful structures and useful industry was unstoppable. A more than three meter high pendulum "The Microcosms" by Henry Bridge from 1734 tells us: “By arts Mechanic you will here be tought / More than Rome knew, or Grecian sages thought.” The clock shows the world mechanism as a microcosm, which is installed in a housing in the form of a Roman temple. And what about man? How does he work? 

Man a machine. Julien Offray de la Mettrie's materialistic view of man created gaps between supporters and opponents: “If ... but all properties of the soul depend so much on the peculiar organization of the brain and the whole body, when they are visible ... only this organization itself, shows ... a very enlightened machine ... Soul is only a meaningless expression, of which one has no idea and which a sharp head can only use to do the part that thinks in us to name. If one assumes even the simplest principle of movement in them, the soul-filled bodies have everything they need to move, to feel, to think, to regret, in short, in terms of the physical and the moral, which depends on it to find their way.”

But time could not be stopped: technical innovations were institutionalized, became almost a part of everyday life. Patent laws protected inventors, capital-intensive inventions and production improved certain businesses. The link between invention and its impact has been intensified. This inevitably led to an increase in production and the creation of new products. Everything seemed possible now. However, one thing still was unsolvable and let some knowledgeable people reach their limits: the independent thinking and acting of the created artificial figures. In this case, one had to fall back to tricks and illusions again. Kempelen’s chess automaton, The Turk, falls into this category. 

Although made up and created 250 years ago, this figure still fascinates due to its originality and technical ingenuity. In the years that followed its creation it was used as a template for many plays and prose, and even in the 20th century it was a topic in the film industry. 

Kempelen was a good observer and expert on the human psyche. He deliberately relied on effects to cover up the weaknesses of his mechanical Turk, never made a fuss about it and simply said, of course with a wink of the eye: “C’est une bagatelle qui n’est pas sans merite du coté du mechanisme, mais les effects n’en paroissent si merveilleux que par la hardiesse de l’idée, et parl’heureux choix des moyens employés pour faire illusion.”However, what always astonished on this machine were the following questions: How does the communication between the player and his counterpart, the Turks, works? How and where does the human operator works in this machine, with this machine? How is it possible to make the moves with the left arm so precisely? Opening and closing its hand? Move the fingers? Grasping the chess pieces with its fingers? 

Kempelen naturally was proud that the movements of the arm were never discovered by many mathematicians, chess players and other people. Although Freiherr von Racknitz published very extensively about the Kempelens mechanism, some thinkers remained skeptical. The author of the publication “The History and Analysis of the supposed Automaton Chess Player of de Kempelen” openly admitted: “It must be acknowledged, however, that this explanation is rather unsatisfactory, when we compare it with the above account of the public manner which is the internal structure of every part of the machine was exhibited.” Only later did the descriptions provide comprehensible solutions. Nevertheless, the refined design and the previous idea were recognized so skillfully implemented in this illusion and therefore needs being praised. 

The chess-playing android, life-size, sitting on a chair, in a Turkish robe, with pronounced facial features, sat opposite the human chess player. Obviously, there was no indication that this was no self-thinking, self-acting machinery in the background, but that a human being was serving it inside, was unseen. That made the whole thing so fascinating. The technology remained hidden, the focus was on anthropomorphism. In the royal chess game, the human mind and the android were challenged to perform highly complex thinking. 

The situation was quite different with the speaking machine developed by Kempelen in the course of more than twenty years. Although Kempelen also intended to give it the shape of a four to five year old child, he abandoned this idea and now let the operators of this apparatus and the listener of the sounds and words emitted out of the machine, seen the bare technology. No illusion, no trick, only the sober technology stood in the foreground. The body parts and organs necessary for the speech process were mechanically implemented. The rectangular box contained the various forms of material that represented the internal organs of the larynx, an externally connected bellows represented the lungs, the air supply, the mouth as well placed outside the box. One could open the box, touch the individual parts necessary for speaking and see in action. Through the construction, Kempelen acted like a dissecting doctor who knows the reason and cause and knows how to explain it later. That should also fundamentally differentiate him from ventriloquists who could manipulate their voice. 

For Kempelen there was also another aspect in the foreground that prompted him to build such a mechanism, that of a philanthropist. This apparatus should serve the deaf and dumb to get in touch with their environment, make themselves understood, step out of the shadows and inhumane existence, in order to become a full member of society. Not being able to express themselves, not having he chance of a proper education let these handicapped people suffer as animals. 

When he set off on an European Grand Tour with the chess machine in 1783, the technical construction of the speaking machine was available in the form we know today and could be demonstrated like this to a special audience, to experts. This tour was emphasized by the souvereign, Joseph II, himself.  For the emperor Kempelen represented an enlighted subject, whom he was proud of to send to foreign countries to show the ability which brain can achive. The bright light and fame of the inventor also shines on the country where he came from and on the souvereign who rules.  

Kempelen was smart enough to know what he achieved in further technical developments, such as a steam engine and reaction machine, which he also carried as a model in his luggage, he would not be accepted by scienctists and will be dismissed as a charlatan, because of the chess player,the illusion. For that chessplayer his name was famous for throughout Europe as leading newspapers and magazine spread the news years before. The chessplayer contributed to finance this two-year’s travel. But for Kempelen the goal was to be acknowledged by science, receiving the fame as leading scientists of this time inhabited. The Turk was a toy, which caused amusement. But constructing a steam engine, developing a speaking machine an other inventions and impovements, meant going through hardships, showing entrepreneurship, lifelong learning, being alert, open and curious for new developments. 

In 1791, his book “Mechanismus der menschlichen Sprache”(Mechanism of Human Language) served as a basis for future linguists and phonetics,secured Kempelen’s place in science. His speaking machine was examined, recreated, and finally found to be worthy meantioned in serious research. 

Finally one point also has to be mentioned which became important throughout the 18th century: the national state seen as a machine, bound to a social body. Easy to be governed, each one as the driving force in this machine 

that produces the greatest impact. The optimization, the tactical incorporation, the establishment of order like a functional warfare. Mental movements should not experience too much friction. Androids or human beings, no differences anymore, should human mutate to fighting machines… ? But this opens up another topic… 

Об авторе: Mag. Dr., freelance scientist, Austria, Vienna
Материалы международной конференции Sorucom 2020
автора 12.10.2020