Wolfgang von Kempelen

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Wolfgang von Kempelen
A charcoal self-portrait of Kempelen, with signature.
Born Johann Wolfgang Ritter von Kempelen de Pázmánd
23 January 1734
Pressburg, Kingdom of Hungary, Habsburg Empire (now Bratislava, Slovakia)
Died 26 March 1804(1804-03-26) (aged 70)
Vienna, Habsburg Empire (now Austria)
Nationality Hungarian
Occupation Inventor
Known for The Turk

Johann Wolfgang Ritter[note 1] von Kempelen de Pázmánd (23 January 1734 – 26 March 1804) was an author and inventor, known for his chess-playing "automaton" hoax The Turk and for his speaking machine.

Von Kempelen was born in Pressburg, then part of the Kingdom of Hungary within the Habsburg Empire, into a German-speaking family; his father was Engelbert Kempelen (1680–1761), his mother was Ágnes Mohai. The Kempelen family had settled in Pressburg in 1640.[citation needed] and was supposedly of Irish ancestry,[citation needed] even thought the name Kempelen itself is Hungarian.[citation needed]

Von Kempelen studied law and philosophy in Pressburg, and then in Győr, Vienna and Rome, but mathematics and physics also interested him. He spoke German, Hungarian, Latin, French, Italian, and later also English.[citation needed] He started to work as a clerk in Vienna.

A reconstruction of The Turk
The secret interior of The Turk

Von Kempelen was most famous for his construction of The Turk, a chess-playing automaton presented to Maria Theresa of Austria in 1770. The machine consisted of a life-sized model of a human head and torso, dressed in Turkish robes and a turban, seated behind a large cabinet on top of which a chessboard was placed.[1] The machine appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent, but was in fact merely an elaborate simulation of mechanical automation: a human chess master concealed inside the cabinet puppeteered the Turk from below by means of a series of levers. With a skilled operator, the Turk won most of the games played during its demonstrations around Europe and the Americas for nearly 84 years, playing and defeating many challengers including statesmen such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.[2]

Kempelen created a manually operated speaking machine.[3]

A reconstruction of Kempelen's speaking machine

He constructed steam-engines, waterpumps, a pontoon bridge in Pressburg (1770), patented a steam turbine for mills (1788/89) and a typewriter for the blind Viennese pianist Maria Theresia von Paradis (1772), and built a theatre house in Buda (inaugurated 25 October 1790) (now Budapest) and the famous fountains at Schönbrunn in Vienna. The reconstruction of the destroyed Buda castle was also partly led by von Kempelen. He was also a talented drawer and etcher; and he wrote poems and epigrams. He composed a singspiel, Andromeda and Perseus, performed in Vienna.

He was married twice, and had five children from the second marriage, of whom two survived into adulthood. He died poor because the Austrian emperor withdrew[when?] his economic support. Von Kempelen died in Vienna. The Wolfgang von Kempelen Computing Science History Prize was named in his honor, as was a high school in Budapest.


  1. ^ Regarding personal names: Ritter is a title, translated approximately as Sir (denoting a Knight), not a first or middle name. There is no equivalent female form.


  1. ^ Ricky Jay, "The Automaton Chess Player, the Invisible Girl, and the Telephone", Jay's Journal of Anomalies, vol. 4 no. 4, 2000.
  2. ^ Tom Standage (2002-04-01). The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous 19th Century Chess-Playing Machine. Walker. ISBN 978-0-8027-1391-9. 
  3. ^ Flanagan, James L., "Speech Analysis, Synthesis and Perception", Springer-Verlag, 1965, pp. 166–167.

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