When Mr. Robot met Mr. Poe: the curious case of the chess-playing machine

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A drawing of "The Great Chess Automaton" that appeared in The Sun on Oct. 16, 1927.

It was a hot summer day in May 1827, and Johann Maelzel’s robot exhibition was not going well.

Crowds had gathered inside Baltimore’s Fountain Inn on Light Street to see the star of the show, a European chess-playing robot (or “automaton,” in the language of the era) that had impressed the likes of Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin and sparked a decades-long debate about the nature of man and machine.


In fact, the “Automaton Chess Player” was a hoax; it would be 170 years before IBM supercomputer Deep Blue would defeat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in New York on May 11, 1997.

During Maelzel’s show, a chess master, William Schlumberger, would secretly operate the device from a hidden cabinet underneath the machine. But Schlumberger, overwhelmed by the heat that day in 1827, suddenly burst out of the cabinet, abruptly ending the game.


Luckily for Maelzel, the outburst occurred outside the audience’s line of sight. But two local boys had witnessed the excitement from a rooftop next door. Soon after, the Baltimore Gazette printed a story under the headline “The Chess Player Discovered.”

The story "The Chess Player Discovered," which appeared in the Baltimore Gazette, June 1, 1827.

It wasn’t exactly the big scoop the paper had been hoping for.

“The story died as suddenly as it had arisen,” according to a 1927 retrospective in The Baltimore Sun. Contemporary news outlets disbelieved the eyewitness account.

“We will wager Pompey’s pillar against a cambric needle that the editor of the Gazette had been deceived,” said the New York Commercial Advertiser, whose own editors thought that Maelzel himself remotely controlled the device during games, though they could not describe how he did it.

An article, "The Great Chess Automaton," appeared in The Sun on Oct. 16, 1927.

Filling in the missing “how” was where an early-career Edgar Allan Poe saw an opportunity to make a name for himself, said Scott Peeples, a Poe scholar and English professor at the College of Charleston. Poe had seen the automaton in Richmond, Va., where it toured after Baltimore and where he was living at the time, and he published an article in the April 1836 edition of the Southern Literary Messenger explaining what he thought was the nature of the hoax: that there was a man concealed within the automaton’s body.

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“He probably saw it as an opportunity to show off a little bit, to show how he could play detective and be a sort of investigative reporter,” said Peeples.

The essay, “Maelzel’s Chess Player,” provided 17 pieces of evidence and was praised by contemporary papers, according to a listing of reviews in “The Poe Log,” a copy of which was provided to The Sun by local Poe scholar George Figgs. These ranged from the Norfolk Herald, which called it one of the “best articles of any kind which have ever appeared in an American Periodical,” to the New-Yorker (a different New Yorker than the one we know of today, which was founded in 1925), which agreed with Poe’s solution, but complained that, around 9600 words, the essay was too long.

Poe didn’t get everything right. Notably, he wrote that “were the machine a pure machine … it would always win.” He was also off about several of the mechanical details; though a human chess player was indeed playing on behalf of the machine, it was concealed underneath the automaton, not inside of it. He also relied heavily on previously published exposés, while criticizing the authors of those texts as presenting “bizarre” and “exceedingly unphilosophical” ideas.


Still, Poe’s point-by-point analytical approach was what impressed his American peers the most, more so than the solution itself, said Peeples.

“It’s not like Poe was shocking people by revealing” there was a man inside the machine, he said. “It’s more the way he did it.” Not just the whodunit, but also the how.

Diagrams from the article "The Great Chess-Robot Hoax," which appeared March 20, 1960, in The Sun.

The structure of the essay was a precursor to Poe’s detective stories, said Tom Standage, deputy editor of The Economist and author of a book about the Mechanical Turk (another name for the automaton because of its costumed attire).

Poe would go on to write a series of tales featuring the amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin, a proto-Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle acknowledged the influence of Poe by making a reference to Monsieur Dupin in “A Study in Scarlet,” his first novel featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. After Dr. Watson points out a resemblance between Holmes and the French detective, Holmes responds in true Poe fashion: “Dupin was a very inferior fellow.”