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Robot chess with the Victorians

Robot chess with the Victorians

Technology may have evolved since “Ajeeb the Wonderful” took on Teddy Roosevelt, but the idea of automata beating humans at their own games has been around for centuries

Technology may have evolved since “Ajeeb the Wonderful” took on Teddy Roosevelt, but the idea of automata beating humans at their own games has been around for centuries

Adam Green | March 23rd 2016

“Ajeeb the Wonderful” was a famous 19th-century chess- and checkers-playing “automaton”, the handiwork of Charles Hooper, a cabinet-maker from Bristol, England. 

Constructed in 1865, Ajeeb was inspired by “The Turk”, which had been unleashed on an unsuspecting public by Hungarian inventor, Wolfgang von Kempelen, in 1770. Until it was destroyed by fire in 1854, The Turk had entertained crowds throughout Europe and reportedly defeated such opponents as Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Charles Babbage, widely regarded as the “father of the computer”. Neither Ajeeb nor The Turk was an actual automaton, of course. They were controlled by a human hidden within the structure, who directed the figure’s mechanical arm. 

Having operated his creation by himself at the start, Hooper later decided hire a string of professional chess players. They included two US champions, Albert Beauregard and Harry Nelson Pillsbury, the latter working Ajeeb from 1893 to 1900 while at the peak of his game. 

After a successful stint in London, followed by a tour of Europe, Ajeeb crossed the Atlantic and became a fixture for almost 30 years at the Eden Musée on Coney Island. Charging a dime for checkers and a quarter for chess, Ajeeb reportedly earned Hooper a tidy sum of more than $1,000 a month, and attracted such celebrity opponents as Harry Houdini, Teddy Roosevelt, and the actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Although Ajeeb and his predecessor were merely illusions of artificial intelligence, they did play an important role in the story of its development. Babbage was not fooled by The Turk, but his subsequent musings on the possibility of an actual game-playing machine would in turn lead to the idea of the difference engine, paving the way for modern computing and robotics.

Ajeeb in his glory days

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