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Daniel Chodowiecki metszete az 1780-as évekből


Speaking without lips, thinking without brain
Farkas Kempelen's speaking machine and chess-playing android

Hours of leisure

Two hundred years after his death, Farkas Kempelen (1734–1804) seems more popular than ever: biographies, historical novels, innu­merable articles are devoted to his memory, the media, artistic and scientific discourses have become interested in this “supporting actor of history.”1

Kempelen was one of those enlightened officials whom Maria The­resa charged with important duties in Hungary, and in relation with the settlement of the Banat. His “hours of leisure,” those left to him by the Hapsburg Leviathan, were devoted to what was typical among the bureaucrats seeking acknowledgment in the Austrian court, an “alternative” life. He was immensely versatile: he drew, wrote drama and poetry, patented “steam and fire engines,” desig­ned water raising apparatuses and canal systems, and devised use­ful “trifles” like a sickbed for the aging Maria Theresa, or a type­writer for the blind Viennese pianist, Marie-Therese Paradis.

He left the most lasting and complex mark on history with his speaking machine and his mechanic chess player.

As Joachim Gessinger notes, the speaking machine made it possible to visualize spoken language.2 It was meant to enable the deaf to arti­culate their ideas, even if they could not hear the sounds generated by the machine.

As early as 1769, Kempelen had introduced another device, which was soon to become one of the greatest technological sensations of the 18th century. His android – which thanks to its oriental clothing was usually referred to in contemporary sources as the “Turk” – could play chess. As regards dry facts, the story is a short one. The Turk was presented a few times in the early 1770s, in Bratislava and Vienna, and it was not until 1783-84 that Kempelen toured it in Europe, appearing in Augsburg, Regensburg, Paris, Lon­don, then on the way back to Bratislava, in Frankfurt and Leip­zig, among other places. After Kempelen’s death, from 1808, inven­tor, musician and showman Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (1772-1838) start­ed to feature it in his automaton show. For an intermezzo, it became the property of Napoleon’s stepson, Eugene-Rose de Beau­harnais, but from 1818 it was again Maelzel who presented it in Paris, Lon­don, Amsterdam, and later in the United States, where it was des­troyed in a fire in 1854.

If Kempelen's chess player could really work on its own, it would have been, “beyond all comparison, the most astonishing of the in­ventions of mankind,”3 suggested Edgar Allan Poe wrily after a Rich­mond presentation of the “Turk.” Now, it was obvious already in the middle of the 1780s, and Kempelen himself made no secret of the fact, that the android was a pseudo-automaton, a deceit: inside the device, a man was hidden. According to the first description, which appeared in Brno in August 1769, Kempelen’s Turk was a metaphoric machine; as such, it has retained its equivocality to this day, and is capable of creating allegoric structures whose elements can always be recoded, recombined and made to apply to the cur­rent conditions.

Through the example of the “Mechanic Turk,” literature, film and phi­losophy can pose, again and again, those questions that concern the identity of man and machine (and the desire for difference), can retell those stories about the hubris of the automaton maker and the limits of simulation, also relating the victory of illusionists over a pub­lic with a blind faith in progress and the power of technology. There is no other automaton in the 18th century that would be quoted in publications as often as Kempelen's chess-player.4

During his tour in 1783-1784, Kempelen always presented the chess-player in the company of the speaking machine. Wherever he appeared with the two devices, the presentations always provoked heated responses from the authors of the late Enlightenment, both surprised and amazed, critical and sceptical, because Kempelen’s interpretation of the dream machine of his age proved more radical than that of the other automaton builders. While the automatons of Vaucanson, Jaquet-Droz or Knaus were reproducing already exis­ting things, Kempelen’s speaking machine seemed to have appro­priated the human voice, its chess-player the human mind.

The Turk I. – The mechanism of a bluff

„ The man who could imagine and devise such a thing has all my respect, and can be certain that his name will live forever.“
(Schreiben über die Kempelische Schachspiel- und Redemaschine, anonym, 1784)

In the technological sense, Kempelen’s chess automaton is based on the connection established between three factors: the use of magnetism to transfer information about the moves on the board to the inside of the box; hiding the player; and a precision mechanism to move the arm of the dummy.

If for most visitors of the Turk shows it was obvious that the arm is moved by a man, the question still remained: how can the player in­side the box follow the game on the external board? Kempelen used small magnetic pins, which were attached to the underside of the board, while the chess pieces included iron cores, which lifted the pins when moved. The game could thus be easily followed.

Though the compass was known to Europeans from the Middle Ages, most people in the 18th century still knew little about magne­tism, for the majority its use remained a mystery. The notion of mag­netic fluid or “animal magnetism” was used in the treatment of the ailments of the body and the mind. The idea to transfer information with the help of magnetism had already been illustrated by a show­man stunt popular in the 18th century , the so-called “smart swan”: the movement of the metal swan was directed by the magnetic “bread” held by the showman.5

Another constituent in the success of the Turk was the fact that the chess-player was hidden inside the box. Before each game, Kem­pelen would open the doors of the box, in a way that would allow the player to change his position. But for the pseudo-mechanism, the box seemed empty.

The third factor was enabling the chess-player under the board to accurately move the arm of the dummy. In his design, Kem­pelen made recourse to the principle of the pantograph, which had been known since at least the early 17th century, and was in use to copy images and to shrink or enlarge them. To move the Turk’s arm, Kem­pelen used the pantographic principle in three dimensions, creating an illusion of natural movement. Two further levers and a rope were responsible for turning the head and moving the fingers.

The Turk was an eclectic piece of machinery. Kempelen created a new whole from the already known parts of stage magic, geometry and physics.

A speaking machine 1. “I will pronounce every French or Italian word…

„ Every French or Italian word I am dictated I will have it pronounce immediately, while German words of some length cause me consi­derable trouble, and they seldom come out perfectly intelligible. There are only a few sentences I can have uttered, and they are short… “ ( Farkas Kempelen: Az emberi beszéd mechanizmusa, valamint a szerző beszélőgépének leírása, p. 339. )

In his study on the mechanism of human speech, Kempelen provided a detailed description of the speaking machine, long before it actually worked. It was not meant for the scientific community, but for the in­terested common reader who wanted to try their hand at a speaking machine that could be built “without any outlay,” and operated “with­out special knowledge,” one that could reproduce every subtlety of the human voice.

Kempelen’s construction was without the equivalents of the tongue, the teeth or the lips; it took the deft manipulation of a pliable rubber funnel, and good hearing, to create sounds that were close to intel­ligible. The machine was controlled not by the laws of acoustics, but by an operator who listened carefully to the sounds produced by the device. It was, above all, the rubber funnel whose operation de­pended on the user’s hearing and manual skills, who changed its shape to reproduce his own aural impressions.

As Joachim Gessinger proves in an in-depth analysis, designing
the machine was not the final step to crown Kempelen’s theoreti­cal spe­culations, though the structure of the treatise gives such an im­pression. Kempelen derived his phonetic descriptions not from any description of the human organs of speech, but from the operation principles of his own machine.

Kempelen’s speaking machine was the first serious effort to produce speech sounds not by dedicated pipes for each sound, but by trans­forming the sound of a single pipe with the help of a lever, valves and a soft rubber funnel. This was the first attempt to pro­duce speech sounds not through the modelling of human speech organs, and I twas a decisive step towards a mechanic and abs­tract system that was to help draw conclusions about the physi­ology of human articulation.

The speaking machine 2. The voice of politics

Kempelen did not simply want to astonish his audience with his de­vice, nor was he only after the mechanism of human speech; he wanted his speaking machine to serve the Enlightenment by offering an apparatus for the deaf with which they could produce sounding language : “If there is any merit or usefulness to my collected in­sights, it is that with the help of my guidance the deaf-and-numb
can be taught to speak more easily, and the pronunciation of certain persons with speech defects can be corrected.”6

All the same, Kempelen does not clarify how this machine could fulfil this mission if its use requires good hearing. Kempelen recounts a visit to the Abbé de l'Épée's Paris school for the deaf-and-dumb, where he was amazed by the mental capacity of a deaf girl. The abbé presented his students to an audience; the visitors could ask questions, which the abbé translated for them with a mysterious sign language, and the students wrote their answers on a black­board, in plain view of everyone, in French. This sign language seemed to offer a view into the very history of language, as if a natural language, one untouched by the arbitrariness and abs­traction of words, had revealed itself in the visual communication
of the deaf-and-dumb.7

It seemed for the contemporaries that the priest had found with his sign language the common tongue of the masses, one that is above all languages. This sign language seemed free from the aestheticism of the royal courts; it meant a new language that had not developed historically, one that preceded writing. Sign language embodied, as it were, the Enlightenment ideal of free speech, the language of facts, which stood in opposition to what was rejected as aristocratic, the rhetorical delivery. The deaf person, supposedly immune to the teachings and ideologies of the hereditary regimes, appeared as the embodiment of the ideal of the pure savage, who is given the oppor­tunity to reach reason through (sign-)language, and thus find abso­lute truth. Only the newly learned language gave the deaf-and-dumb the rights that were their due. The desires of the new citizens, thitherto unsounded and unarticulated, could at last find direct expression.

This way the speaking machine was meant for a social space that had to emerge beyond the order of representation of the mirror halls: a pedagogic, therapeutic space for the education of new people. Models were created which required not contemplation, as in the church or the court, but hearing. The process of this education can be better analyzed with acoustic, than with optical, metaphors.

Kempelen’s double

“The question whether it agrees with our love for man, with consciousness and the principles of Christianity, and whether it is useful for the state, to enlighten a coarse and ignorant people
and to teach it morals, no longer seems difficult to answer.”
(Farkas Kempelen: Grundriß Zu einer Systematischen Landeseinrichtung des Temesvarer Banats, 1769, § 36, Hofkammerarchiv Wien, HS 996)

In their individual forms, the playing, writing and speaking machines ref­lected those social changes that occurred while the ancien regime gave way to modern public administration. New, subtle
forms of managing and controlling people were developed, new methods of government were introduced. The ideal of courtly behaviour was replaced by styles of interaction that concentrated on efficiency and were geared towards success. The android of the 18th century was not the automaton that was capable of the convincing emulation of natural models and physiognomies; man was the true android, who had to be made to fit the bourgeois society – as a student, as a subject made literate and disciplined.

With their form and operation, Kempelen’s chess-player and speaking machine make visible a new principle of arrangement and imaging, which is no longer informed by the Baroque world order. These machines no longer reflect the questions of human existence be­yond social conflicts, political tensions and feudal restrictions, nor do they represent man as a machine; both devices correspond to the newly emerging political economy of the body, as well as the ideal of the official, who, unlike the baroque courtier, only performs particular functions. The chess-playing android and the talking mac­hine represent the power of bureaucratic rationalism, which resides exactly in the fact that it is not tied to a single mortal body. In a sen­se, Kempelen the bureaucrat found his own model-like double in the automatons.

Kempelen was invited to work at the court in 1755 as a draughts­man. Throughout his career – especially between 1765-1771, as commissioner responsible for the resettlement of the Banat and the development of the police force – he always appeared as a subject loyal to the imperial family, a clever technocrat who worked at the intersection of public administration and politics, an executioner of the pragmatic ideals and acting principles of Theresian enlighten­ment.

Working as an official in the middle of the 18th century, Kempelen was encountering new, emerging structures. The foundations of modern government were laid down during the reign of Maria The­resa. The reforms started by Friedrich Wilhelm Haugwitz in 1748 aimed primarily at the standardization of the state and the weake­ning of the old feudal order. The modern public admi­nistration, intro­duced in defiance of a resistant aristocracy, was characterized by literacy and the documentation of procedures. The political reforms reflected, in almost all areas of society, the administration system of Theresian enlightenment, which relied more on functionality than principles. The emphasis was on simplicity, the lack of ambiguity, and uniformity.

The productivity inherent in controllability and the lack of ambiguity, the potential for control, management and manipulation that can be derived from the working principles of a bureaucracy that functions like a machine and from the learnable virtues of the official, were ma­nifest not only in all of Kempelen’s ideas as a bureaucrat, but also in the construction principles of his automatons.

A “machinist of the state,” Kempelen was also the ideal specimen of the Theresian official: respectful, diligent, provident, fearless in games – his own emperor. His irony may lie in that the man may not have completely disappeared within the Leviathan.


1 Theodor Heuss: Schattenbeschwörung. Randfiguren der Geschichte. Stuttgart, Tübingen, 1947. (Pp. 59-66: “Der künstliche Mensch. Das Leben des Wolfgang von Kempelen.”)

2 Joachim Gessinger: Auge und Ohr. Studien zur Erforschung der Sprache am Menschen. 1700 – 1850. Berlin, New York, 1994.

3 Edgar Allan Poe: “Maelzel's Chess-Player.” Southern Literary Journal, April 1836.

4 The Vienna Kempelen Archive (KAW) at the Vienna University of Applied Art, which researches the history of the reception of Kem­pelen's machines, has collected exactly 1300 documents from bet­ween 1734 and 2000. Since the scope of the present study forbids even the shortest bibliography, we need to limit ourselves to four (self-)references: (a) for an overview, cf. Brigitte Felderer, Ernst Strouhal: Kempelen – Zwei Maschinen . Sonderzahl Verlag. Wien 2004; (b) for the context of the speaking machine, cf. Brigitte Felderer (ed.): Phonorama. Eine Kulturgeschichte der Stimme als Medium. Matthes & Seitz Berlin, Berlin, 2005; (c) for the context of the chess-player, cf. Ernst Strouhal: “Eine flexible Geschichte. Kempelens Tür­ke.” Karl. Das kulturelle Schachmagazin (2002:4); (d) for the con­text of secular magic cf. Brigitte Felderer, Ernst Strouhal (eds.): Rare Künste. Zur Kultur- und Mediengeschichte der Zauberkunst. Springer Verlag, Wien/New York, 2007.

5 On the story of the “smart swan,” cf. Volker Huber: “Der kluge Schwan. Die lange Geschichte eines Zaubertricks.” In: Brigitte Felderer, Ernst Strouhal (eds.): Rare Künste. See footnote 4, pp. 313-338.

6 Kempelen Farkas: Az emberi beszéd mechanizmusa, valamint a szerző beszélőgépének leírása. Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, 1989, p. 35.

7 The abbé was not motivated in his efforts by any hope of pecu­niary profit: devoting his own wealth to the education of the deaf-and-dumb, he wanted to initiate his protégés to the secrets of Christian theology: they had to learn to pray.