Monday, 25 September 2006

Dissertation Arcana #9,871: In Coincidences, My Head Swims [This is the second installment in a series on the unaccountable appearance of chess-related arcana in my dissertation researches. The first installment can be found here. Unlike that one, however, this one happens to be true.] In 1857, two unsigned articles appeared in Chess Monthly explaining how the infamous chess automaton known as the Turk worked: The chest was divided into two apartments above, and a drawer beneath. In the smaller apartment, occupying about a third of the longitudinal dimensions of the box, was placed a number of pieces of brass, made very thin, and designed only for the purpose of deception .... Behind this movable back of the drawer, there was therefore left an unoccupied space of the whole length of the chest, and rather more than a foot in breadth. In this through was fixed an iron railroad ... upon which was placed a low seat. So shiny knobs, bells and whistles above; below, a cramped seat into which tiny grandmasters could squeeze their emaciated selves. That's the "mystery" of the Turk, according to these anonymous articles. However, given that they were published in 1857 and the Turk had been destroyed in a fire in 1854, I'm not sure what would incline a person to trust those anonymous articles. After the death of Maelzel, its inventor and operator, on route to Cuba in 1838, the Turk had been auctioned off to "a noted professor of medicine." Sometime thereafter, it had been sold or gifted to the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia, where it would burn with the rest of the building. Curious, I started digging around. The obvious place to start would be Edgar Allen Poe's "Maelzel's Chess Player" (1836). As one of The Obvious' biggest fans, I went for it. Learned quite a bit about how Poe supposed it worked, but not much in the way of proof. So I started digging through his letters. Found this one, dated 29 February 1840: Dr Sir, It will give me great pleasure to accept your invitation for Feb: 29th—this evening. Edgar A. Poe To whom was this letter addressed? Dr. J. K. Mitchell. I could barely contain my excitement. Four years after Poe writes about automaton and two years after it had been purchased by a "noted professor of medicine," Poe accepts the invitation of a Dr. J.K. Mitchell. You see, I'm very familiar with a particular Dr. J.K. Mitchell, one who, though born in Virginia, spent his adult life practicing medicine in Philadelphia—where, you'll remember, the Turk ultimately meets its fiery end. What could Poe and this Dr. Mitchell have been discussing on that cold February evening? More to the point, what mechanical contraption could they have been jamming their too-tall frames into? I can't be certain, but I feel like I can hazard a guess. I know, I know, guess-work doesn't befit an historicist. Thing is, I went back and looked at those articles. Sure enough, they're unsigned ... but flip to the index and you'll find your...

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