Kempelen’s chess-playing automaton

10 minutes

A chess-playing machine hoax that beat the best and helped inspire the computer

Generations before sophisticated artificial intelligence was widely thought possible, automatons – elaborate machines frequently intended to mimic lifelike movements – were the closest that humans had come to simulating life. Though aspects of their underlying mechanisms date back to ancient Greece, by the 18th century, automatons had become quite sophisticated, and were used as both ‘the playthings of royalty’ and a ‘testing ground for technology’ throughout the world. Kempelen’s Chess-playing Automaton tells the strange, largely forgotten story of one of the most infamous and influential automatons ever created: the Austrian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen’s chess-playing ‘Turk’.

Director: Alice Nelson

Producer: Sarah Tierney

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