III – Ancient chess-men discovered in the isle of Lewis
In the year 1831 an announcement made in the Scottish newspapers excited the attention of antiquaries to a curious discovery made in Scotland in the Isle of Lewis on the sea-shore, in the parish of Uig, of a considerable number of chess-men of excellent workmanship. They were discovered by a peasant of the island, whilst digging on a sand-bank, near to a ruin of some note, and having been purchased by the Trustees of the British Museum, these figures now form part of our national collection of antiquities, together with a bone or ivory fibula, and fourteen table-men, or draught-men, which were found with them. The chess-men are sixty-seven in number, forming the materials of six or more sets, but the pieces are of such various sizes, that it is difficult to select two sets which correspond exactly. Of the total number, six are kings, five queens, thirteen bishops, fourteen knights, ten warders, and nineteen pawns. The largest king is 41/2; inches high, and 63/4; inches in circumference; the largest queen 37/8 inches in height, and 53/8 in circumference; the largest bishop, knight and warder, (the latter holding the place of the rook or castle,) are respectively 5 inches in height; and the largest pawn 23/8 inches. For the sake of distinction, part of these pieces were originally stained of a dark red or beet-root colour, but from the action of salt-water for many centuries, the colour is in most cases nearly discharged.
There is little variation in the form or attitude of the KINGS. They are all represented as old men with large spade-shaped beards, moustaches, and hair falling in plaits over their shoulders. They have on their heads low quatrefoil crowns, either plain or ornamented with a border, and sit on square-formed chains, having high backs richly carved with various scrolls, figures of animals, intersecting arches, and tracery-work in the best style of art of the twelfth century, as seen on monuments, and in manuscripts. Their dress consists of an upper and an under robe, the former of which, that is, the mantle or clamys, is thrown in folds over each arm, and left open on the right side as high as the shoulder, (where it is fastened by a clasp,) for the purpose of leaving the arm free. Each of the figures holds a sword, with both hands across his knees, as though in the act of drawing it, according to the old mode assigned to royal personages. The swords are broad and short; the scabbards are marked either with a simple longitudinal line, or with lines placed diagonally. In the different figures, there are some slight variations, and in one the hair is not plaited, but spreads over the back in six long wreaths: the ornaments of the chains are also diversified; one of them exhibits an intersection semicircular arches, as seen in some of our early Norman churches.
The QUEENS, who are also crowned, are represented sitting in chairs, ornamented in a style similar to those of the kings. From the back of the head of each hangs a species of hood, which spreads over the shoulders, and accords with what was universally worn by ladies of rank in the middle ages;
as is proved by manuscripts and monuments of various nations. From the shoulders to the feet hangs a long mantle, which shows in front an under garment or gown. The sleeves of this, like those of the Saxons and Norman-French, are short, with a worked border; and from the elbows to the wrists are a series of plaits, resembling bands, which probably were worn round the arm. Most of these figures are represented in a contemplative posture, the head resting upon the right arm, which is supported by the left. One of them (represented in the cut) holds a curiously-shaped drinking-horn in the left hand. In the different figures there are some variations in the forms of the crowns and hoods: and in one a striped petticoat and the feet are visible, which are covered in other instances: the chair-back of the latter piece furnishes also another example of round and intersecting arches.
The BISHOPS. Five of these pieces are represented in ornamented chairs, and the remaining eight in a standing position. All the sitting figures, and four of the standing ones, wear the chasuble, dalmatic, stole, and tunic, of the form anciently prescribed, and corresponding with representations of much greater antiquity; the remainder have a cope instead of a chasuble, but the stole and dalmatic are omitted. The mitres are very low, and in some instances quite plain, but have the double band, or infulce, attached behind. The hair is cut short round the head. They hold a crosier with one, or with both hands: and in the former instances the other hand holds a book, or is raised in the attitude of benediction. On the backs of the chasuble and stole arc various crosses or ornaments. In the details both of the habits and other work, there are numerous minute variations.
The KNIGHTS are full-length figures mounted on horseback, and are probably the most interesting portion of the whole. They are habited in long coats or gambesons, which descend in folds to the feet; the sleeves have a cuff or border at the wrist. The leg has apparently a covering of some sort down to the ankle, where it is met with a species of half-boot without spur. Their helmets, with a few exceptions, are of a conical shape, and mostly with nasals and round flaps to protect the nose, ears, and neck. All the figures have moustaches and large round beards, except one, which has the beard separated into three forks. A long kite-formed shield, suspended from the neck, hangs on the left side of each, ornamented with various devices, approaching in some instances very closely to heraldic distinctions. Beneath the shield appears the sword, which is fastened round the waist by a belt, and in the right hand each knight carries a massive spear. The horses are caparisoned in high saddles, plain or ornamented; saddle-cloths curiously bordered; stirrups and bridles; the mane is cut short, and the hair suffered to grow down on the forehead. On one side of the shields is a cross, bearing a lozenge, plain; on another is an ornamented lozenge; and the remainder are variously indented with crosses and other ornaments.
XIII – The Automaton Chess-Player – I
Probably no contrivance of the fertile genius of man ever excited so much wonder and delight for upwards of half a century as the Automaton Chess-player. The announcement and subsequent production of a machine which appeared so to vary its operations and modes of action as to suit the ever-varying circumstances ef a game of chess were sufficient to account for this excitement throughout Europe.
The results of automatic machinery in general cease to interest the mind strongly so soon as the effects produced by it are clearly traced to well-established physical causes. The wind which turns the sails of a windmill; the flowing stream which gives motion to a water-wheel; and the elastic steam which elevates and depresses alternately a piston, are simple results of self-evident causes. These prime movers may impart motion to more or less complicated machinery, so as to produce the variegated carpet which adorns our rooms, or the sheet of paper upon which we write, but still the mind is satisfied that these results are produced by machinery in motion, which motion is imparted and sustained by some well-known force. So also in machines which imitate many of the motions and attributes of animals the mind is soon satisfied that the cause is mechanical, and resides within the automaton itself, since by a slight observation it is seen that the automaton is adequate to the performance only of a very limited routine of actions which are always repeated, like the tunes on a barrel-organ, in the same order.
Automata may be divided into three classes, – viz., the simple, the compound, and the spurious. The first class comprises those insulated automata, the movements of which result from mechanism alone, by the aid of which they perform certain actions, and continue them so long as the moving force is kept in an active state. As examples we may cite the trumpeter of Maclzel. the flute-plaver of Vaucanson, the self-acting piano-forte, &c.
The second class includes those automata which, like the former are moved by machinery, but possessing at the same time a secret communication with human agency, are enabled to change the regular order and succession of their movements according to existing circumstances, and hence in some manner to assume the character of living beings.
The third class contains those automata which, under the semblance only of mechanism, are wholly directed and controlled by a concealed human agent. Now it must be at once perfectly clear to every intelligent reader that the Automaton Chess-player cannot belong to the first class, because, great and surprising as the powers of mechanism assuredly are, the movements which result from it arc necessarily limited and uniform. Those who know anything of the difficulties and intricacies of chess will readily admit that intellect, and that of no mean order, is alone equal to the task of managing this game; that machinery can never usurp and exercise the faculties of mind, and therefore that the Chess Automaton, which in its day encountered, and often conquered, some of the first-rate professors of chess, cannot be admitted into the class of simple automata. Its claims to a place either in the second or in the third division the reader will easily decide upon after a perusal of the following details. The Chess Automaton was the invention of Wolfgang de Kempelen, a native of Hungary, Aulic councillor to the royal chamber of the domains of the Emperor of Germany, and celebrated for his skill in mechanics. In the year 1769 de Kempelen, being at Vienna on business relative to his office, was ordered to court to be present as a scientific witness of some magnetic games or performances which one Pelletier, a Frenchman, was to exhibit before the Empress Maria Theresa. During the exhibition, Her Majesty having condescended to enter into familiar conversation with de Kempelen, he was induced to hint that he thought himself capable of making a machine, the effects of which would be more surprising, and the deception more complete than anything Her Majesty had seen during this magnetic exhibition. The empress took him at his word, and expressed so earnest a desire to see his project carried into execution that she obtained a promise of him to set about it immediately. He kept his word, and in six months again appeared at the Court of Vienna in company with the Automaton Chess-player.
It may readily be supposed that this automaton excited the admiration and surprise of every one who either saw it play or played with it. An account of the invention soon spread through a great part of Europe; the newspapers and journals were eager to announce its marvellous powers; the smallest scrap of information respecting it was read with avidity; and the result of all this excitement was that these accounts become daily more exaggerated and contradictory. Even an intimate friend of the inventor, who had repeated opportunities of witnessing the performances of the automaton, expresses himself in the following high-flown terms.
The boldest idea that ever entered the brain of a mechanic was doubtless, that of constructing a machine to imitate man, the master-piece of the Creation, in something more than figure and motion. M. de Kempelen not only conceived this idea, but also carried it into execution; his Chessplayer being beyond contradiction the moat astonishing automaton that ever existed. Never before did any mere mechanical figure unite the vis motrix with the vis directrix, or to speak more clearly, the power of moving itself in different directions as circumstances unforeseen and depending on the will of any person present might require. Was a wooden figure ever before seen playing at the most difficult and complicated of all games, frequently beating the most consummate adept, and setting him right if ever he deviated from the rules of the game?
The same writer published a series of letters to a friend descriptive of all the “externals” of the Chess Automaton. These letters are extremely interesting, not only on account of the admiring simplicity with which he speaks of the invention of his friend; but for the information they give as to the mode of exhibition adopted by de Kempelen from the very first. Our author writes to a friend at a distance from Vienna, and begs him to set bounds to his curiosity, “for he cannot gratify it;” and although he admits the automaton “must be a deception,” yet “he is forced to the humiliating avowal that it is as incomprehensible to himself as to the person he addresses.” He is, however, kept in countenance by the fact that “others endowed with much superior knowledge and quicker penetration have not been more successful than himself in developing the mystery.” And then growing warm with his subject he exclaims, “It is a deception! – granted: but such an one as does honour to human nature; a deception more beautiful, more surprising, more astonishing than any to be met with in the different accounts of mathematical recreations.”
In our next article on this subject we will describe particularly the appearance and performances of the Chess Automaton. We will conclude our present notice with two extracts from the author already quoted.
The first idea that strikes you on a superficial examination of this chess-player is a suspicion that its movements are effected by the immediate impulse of some human being. I myself fell into this mistake. When I first saw the inventor shove his automaton, fixed to a kind of large cupboard, out of an alcove, I could not any more than the rest of the company avoid suspecting that this cupboard certainly contained a child, which from the size of it I supposed might be from ten to twelve years old. Many of the company were so fully persuaded of it that they made no scruple to declare it. I assented only in silence to their opinion, but was not less confused when I saw M. de Kempelen tuck up the dress of the automaton, take out the draweis, and open all the drawers of the cupboard, and in this situation roll it round the room on the castors which it goes upon, turning it in every direction so as to enable each person present to examine it on all sides. You may be sure that I was not a little eager to gratify my curiosity. I examined even the minutest corner of it, without being able to find anything throughout the whole capable of concealing an object the size of my hat. My vanity was grievously mortified to see my hypothesis, which at first sight appeared so plausible, instantaneously disproved.
I know not whether the whole company were affected in the same manner: but I thought I could perceive in many of their countenances marks of the greatest surprise. One old lady in particular who had not forgotten the tales told her in her youth, crossed herself, and sighing out a pious ejaculation went and hid herself in a window seat, as distant as she could from the evil spirit, which she firmly believed possessed the machine.
Our author being thus fairly put upon a wrong scent has recourse to the idea of a secret communication between the automaton and some neighbouring apartment. This leads him to describe the residence of M. de Kempelen thus – M. de Kempelen resides here at Presburg, and occupies with his family the first floor of his house; his little workshop together with his study where the automaton is placed, are on the second floor. When the automaton is exhibited, the company assemble in the lower apartment, from whence they are conducted up stairs. In passing through the workshop which serves as an antechamber to the study, you see nothing but joiner’s, smith’s and clockmaker’s tools, lying in heaps in that confusion so characteristic of the abode of a mechanical genius. The walls of the study are in part hid by large presses, some containing books, others antiques, and the remainder a small collection of natural history: the intermediate spaces are decorated with paintings or prints, the performances of the master of the house. The writer satisfies himself that no communication can possibly exist between the automaton and an adjoining room; this was indeed proved by the machine being carried for exhibition to the Imperial Palace.
EXCERPTS FROM THE MAGAZINE POSTED IN 1841
SOURCE Chess Archeology , The Saturday Magazine On Chess