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A man and his machines

Talking Turk and other wonders with magic-maker and automaton-collector John Gaughan

By Joshuah Bearman- Share this article

In 1770, Wolfgang von Kempelen wheeled a wooden box into the Habsburg court in Vienna. On top was a chessboard. Seated to one side was an automaton, wearing a dramatic coat and turban. It was called the Turk,” and it played chess quite well. For years the Turk toured Europe and America, delighting audiences and besting Catherine the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. But the Turk was a trick: Somewhere inside the cabinet was a human, playing the pieces on the board. No one knew how it worked at the time. Then, in 1854, it was destroyed in a fire and the illusion was lost. Until, 130 years later, the Turk reappeared in Atwater, California.

It was re-created, from fragments, by John Gaughan, a master magic builder who spent $120,000 of his own money on the duplicitous automaton. Gaughan himself is widely considered to be the greatest living designer of illusions; over the past 35 years, he’s built magic tricks for Ricky Jay, David Blaine, Harry Blackstone Jr., and, of course, our friends in spandex, Siegfried & Roy.

His studio, tucked behind the storefronts on Glendale Boulevard, looks like the carpentry workshop of a wizard. Alongside band saws and piles of lumber are thousands of illusions, housed in Wunderkammer that is one of the world’s best collections of magic from the past 200 years. There are wands, collapsing cages (that do, in fact, go up one’s sleeve), Houdini’s handcuffs, spirit bells, visages of the magician’s muse, Mephistopheles, a purse-sized blunderbuss, handbills from music-hall magic shows in London and Paris, and spring-loaded devices of all sizes and shapes. It is a unique personal museum, one rarely seen by the public, but Gaughan is happy to show visitors around his many artifacts.

Joshuah Bearman: When The Turk appeared in Vienna, people were accustomed to seeing mechanical figures already, right? So in the mind of the audience, it seemed like a new mechanical marvel — that can also somehow play chess.

John Gaughan: Right, they were used to seeing a lot of oddities, including mechanical figures, on tour in those days. That was high entertainment. There would be weird shaped figurines that would emit supposed voices, and other wonder-cabinet type things. Vaucanson’s digesting duck had made the rounds. As had many full-size automatons, not unlike this guy — (Gaughan gestures at a glass case containing a six foot, clarinet-wielding Enlightenment-era robot [1]) — so the Turk fit right in. It was another marvel of the day.

The real trick is finding a master chess player who is also a midget.

No midget required! All the old engravings positing how this thing worked showed a midget but they were wrong. It’s really a full size person.

No kidding.

You could fit in there quite comfortably. How’s your game?

Not good. I never recovered from being beaten by Spencer, who took the chess team captain’s spot in the third grade.

I’m a weak player as well, but I had read about the Turk for years and always wondered what the illusion was.

How long did it go undetected that it was an illusion?

It was several decades before anyone demonstrated the hoax, in the 1820s. But even then the true nature of the illusion was not known until I built this one. There have been over eight hundred books and articles and plays and films written about this thing and no one ever really knew how it worked. People suspected that there was somebody hidden inside, but that was it. But it turns out to be a very sophisticated illusion, especially for its time. It’s incredible that Klemperen pulled this thing off in the eighteenth century. Even today, when we demonstrate The Turk for chess clubs or magic conventions, it still fools everyone because it’s very convincing that the cabinet is empty. They know there’s someone in there, but they can’t figure out where.

Can we open the doors?

But of course! As you can see, all the panels open, the drawers and everything. Now, with the doors staying open, the entire cabinet spins, and you will notice that there is nothing inside but the gears that allow the Turk to play chess. Other than that, you can see right through the cabinet.

Wow. It really is astonishing, because you just can’t how a person can fit in there.[2]

And then you lift up all of the Turk’s clothes and open the doors to the “chess playing apparatus.” See, there are doors here, and you put a candle through so they can see the machinery, and it all seems very convincing.

[Pause.] So how the fuck is there a dude inside here?!?!

Uh-huh. That’s how good the illusion is. But he’s in there, all right. And there’s enough light coming in for the player inside to see the internal chessboard and follow along as the director, outside with the audience, calls the game. “Rook to Queen 4 — a interesting move that perhaps might confound the Turk!”

So the chess-playing apparatus down here is actually for show? It doesn’t even control the surrogate board for the player?

Doesn’t do anything.

And the internal chess board was the piece that survived the fire, right?

It didn’t survive the fire. It had been removed and was stored separately when the original Turk burned.

How long ago did you start researching the Turk?

About thirty years ago.

So the chess board helped — but what there something else, some other clues that enabled you to really sort it out?

We’ll I’d been looking at engravings and diagrams of this thing in magic books for years. Early, I started some prototypes, fairly blind. And then about twenty years ago, I started developing a personal library of material about the Turk. And then we found some letters in one library that was correspondence with another museum, from the 1840s.

What was in the letters?

They were from a guy who had actually worked inside the Turk, and he was correcting someone else who had claimed to know how it works. So there were little diagrams and descriptions and oh boy — there it was!

Was it a big revelation?

Well, the illusionary principle of this thing was thought to have been invented at least a hundred years later. And this is really the first cabinet trick for a stage illusion, so the Turk involved some big innovations.

It’s interesting that this device was a wild success around the turn of the nineteenth century, just around the time that engineering and the early industrial revolution is appearing, which also felt like a form of magic to most people.

Indeed.

So audiences were probably equally willing to believe in an illusion as some new-fangled technology.

Well, that’s true. The hey day of magic went hand in hand with the industrial revolution. Kempelen was an inventor and held patents. But he also had magic effects in his personal collection, it was later discovered. And he innovated magic to create this thing.

And I read that Charles Babbage, who invented the first computer, had seen the Turk and that was part of what inspired him.

Yup. People then didn’t know it was an illusion. They thought it was a thinking machine. And Babbage thought: “My god, if they can build a machine that plays chess, I should be able to make a machine that that can execute various rational functions.”

So it was later that he built the analytical engine.

Which was programmed with punch cards. And Jaquard, whose looms were programmed that way, may have also seen the Turk. And that was how computing began.

It’s crazy that the first thinking machine was inspired by a fake parlor trick version of a thinking machine.

The Turk seemed like modernity but turned out to be old magic. But in a way magic was modernity. Magic and machines were all bound up together. Most of the master magicians of the nineteenth century were also watch makers. Both require meticulous planning and mechanical ingenuity to build intricate, tiny, things. They would take the latest engineering and apply it to magic. And vice-versa: developing a certain illusion would lead to engineering breakthroughs.

How did you get started in magic?

I grew up in Dallas, and I hung around a local magic shop called Douglas Magic Land. Every Saturday we would go down there and meet the local magicians. And there was a one particular guy on TV locally, Mark Wilson. And I started working with him afternoons and weekends.

Did you perform with him?

I realized early on I wasn’t a great performer. I used to do birthday parties around the neighborhood. That was about the extent of it for me. Nowadays I do the Turk, and some of these automata pieces at the Magic Castle.

Was there a point where you realized: “I’m not going to be a magic performer but a magic builder”?

My younger sister used to always tell me things like “hey, you’re never gonna make it!” But I always liked to build things, and tear stuff apart and find out how it worked. So I set up a little shop with Mark Wilson to build his equipment. And that worked out well. When he came to Los Angeles for television in the late 60s, I came with him.

And at a certain point you struck out on your own?

Right.

Do you have some favorite illusions that you’ve created over the years?

That’s hard to say. The most interesting thing we’re working on right now is a new levitation. I’ve done them before. This one’s for a Kabuki theater in Tokyo, for a performance where a Kabuki actor wants to float all over the stage.

What about a favorite item from your collection here?

Oh, there’s too many to choose from.

I read somewhere about an illusion that you reversed, an old trick that you figured out and when you showed to your old mentor and boss, Mark Wilson, he still couldn’t figure out how you had done it. What was that?

Oh, right. That was the teddy bear.

Where the head floats away.

Yeah, that’s an effect that came out in 1916, and it involves a teddy bear — quite fashionable at the time — which sits under a glass dome on a table. And it floats up in the air under the dome and looks around and talks while its eyes move and everything.

Who’s trick was that?

Dr. Hooker. He invented this thing, and he had a show called Dr. Hooker’s Rising Cards, which was a very elaborate, evening-long performance with just a deck of cards. Which could be seen by invitation only, in his home.

And how did you come across it?

I got the piece from his grandson, about 15 years ago. Dr. Hooker’s collection included a number of pieces of automata, and I was visiting him about those But while I was there, the grandson said, “You know I still have my grandfather’s rising card illusions?” Of course, I’d heard all about these cards but didn’t know they still existed.

That must have been exciting.

Well, it was funny the way it happened. Dr. Hooker’s grandson had no interest in magic or the cards. He lived in the woods in Connecticut, in a big house. And at a certain point he took me out to a barn, where he unlocked and opened the door and said, “here is all of Dr. Hooker’s equipment.” And then — click! — he slammed it shut. I got just a glimpse. For me, it was like Howard Carter when he saw King Tut’s tomb for the first time.

There’s a sleuthing aspect to your work, since magic is purposely mysterious, with methods and sources kept secret.

It’s true. And you never know what you might find. And even after you find something, you have to figure out how it worked. Nothing was written down. Hooker’s grandson didn’t know anything about the card rise. So we set it up and reverse-engineered the routine, based on accounts of it and the equipment from the barn. And just like the chess player, it still fools everyone.

What did other magicians say about this lost trick being revived?

That really got around. Because this is something everyone had read about in the magic books and there was so much curiosity about it. At the time that Dr. Hooker performed, people wrote these elaborate accounts of the show. What they said they saw was so incredible that contemporary magicians reading the accounts today didn’t believe them. They assumed the writers at the time were embellishing. Card magicians were especially skeptical. They didn’t think any one could actually do what Dr. Hooker did. But he could!

It’s interesting how magic lineage can get broken. Because a magician never reveals his trick, right? Sometimes I guess the continuity is kept from master to apprentice another, or father to son, but if no one else learned the trick —

And that happened a lot.

— then it would be lost. All these great innovations disappear. Like the Turk. So when you unearth something and figure out the illusion, you’re only person that knows how it works!

That’s true. But we often only get partly there. We recreated about half an hour of Hooker’s rising cards, which was three times that long.

So there’s all these little threads of inventions and illusions that get lost. It’s a perpetually incomplete body of knowledge.

Right. The apparatuses are gone because they were big huge things were stored in people’s carriage houses or something. And the next generation, they threw them out. And no one wrote anything down. Even the know-how to fabricate these items gets lost. Look over here, at these oval glass domes. We don’t know how these were made. You could do this now, but in a very expensive process. At the time, these were cheap and easy.

Really?

Yes! I mean, for real. It’s a lost process.

And all these fabrications are so elaborate.

It still impresses me, the raw craftmanship. The amount of work they would go through to make these illusions is just incredible! The mechanics are so intricate. Look at this piece here.

[Gaughan picks up a rose.]

This was made by a French magician. This rose would mechanically open up to reveal a vanished ring taken from the audience. The magician finds a willing volunteer who extends her hand, then he goes throw the performance. On the table is a bundle of roses, and at the end, the volunteer picks up a rose, which automatically opens itself and presents the ring.

And whose trick is this?

Robert Houdin.

Houdin is the guy who inspired Houdini’s name.

Right. Hungarian Erik Weisz was so impressed with Houdin, he changed his name to Houdini to honor him. Houdin was one of the greats of all time. Here are some of Houdin’s Playbills. I have several of these illusions here.

Can you perform this whole bill here?

No. In fact there’s a number of them on there we’re not quite sure what they were.

What’s L’oranget?

That’s the orange tree.

Like in The Illusionist?

Yup. I consulted on that. That’s a real trick.

So real oranges grow out of this thing?

Uh-huh. And then there’s Antonio Diablo here, Houdin’s famous trapeze artist. This piece was originally built by him.

What does it do?

He does acrobatics on his little trapeze there. You ask him questions and he answers. He smokes a pipe.

What? This little frozen dandy in the red cap and blue bowtie swings around and smokes a pipe?

Yup. And then it jumps off the trapeze altogether.

That’s crazy.

I know.

1. About this incredible item, Gaughan later described:

This piece had been in a warehouse for over a hundred years. It is not really the product of a magician but it’s very magical. It was made in the Netherlands in 1838 — and the illusionary property about it is that it really plays that clarinet. The fingers articulate up and down and back andorth, so he has a 32-note chromatic scale.

So air goes through the actual clarinet and the automaton’s fingers produce the notes?

Right. And the man who invented it — Dr. Cornelius, Jacobus van Oeckelen — would accompany the automaton’s clarinet with piano. Eventually, he sold it to P.T. Barnum, and it was in Barnum’s museum in New York until that burned down, and then it was given to the University of Michigan, which is where I got it.

What condition was it in?

It looked like it had come up from the Titanic. It was in a number of pieces and just in terrible shape.

How long did it take to put this thing back together?

Almost five years. And it still doesn’t work perfectly.

Where does the air come from, this bellows?

The bellows tube is a trick. That’s the only false part. The air comes from this rubber hose, and goes in through his thumbs up into the instrument.

So the finger pressing is not just for show? It actually depresses the reed.

Yup. There’s … 1, 2, 3, 4 … 2, 4, 6, 8 — so there’s 16 keys showing on there, and it plays 32 notes. And it sounds like a clarinetist. During performances, Von Aucklund would have to jump up and rip the guy’s clothes off to prove that it’s is indeed a machine.

2. Note: it does seem impossible, even close up. Especially close up!

20 Responses to “A man and his machines”

  1. Thanks for this. I wonder if Mr. Gaughan is in need of an apprentice? What an incredible place that would be to work!!

  2. suburbanhick says:

    Check out the second book of Robertson Davies’ “Deptford Trilogy” (called “World of Wonders”). It features a magician who honed his craft as a child forced to perform inside just such a rigged automaton – which played cards, not chess – named Abdullah. Also contains a good deal of information about Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. A recommended read!

  3. blueelm says:

    This is awesome! Also, I had no idea this guy was from Dallas. Wow.

  4. sleightlysubtle says:

    I want to apprentice too!

  5. donaldtheghost says:

    It’d be great to see photos of the actual devices in question… I want to see this clarinettist! 

  6. Brian Doom says:

    Kibuki?  Might you mean “Kabuki” (歌舞伎)?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabuki

  7. howdini says:

    Terrific piece! Jim Steinmeyer’s books are highly recommended reading, if you’re into early stage magic.

    One sticking point, though: “P.T. Barnham?!” You do mean “Barnum,” don’t you?

  8. Clavicarius says:

    The part about Babbage/Jacquard is really incredible.  It reminds me of a time when my husband and I were playing one of those hidden object games, and we were stuck on the last object for several minutes.  As a joke, he said he had found it and pointed to the area of the screen it was on (chosen arbitrarily).  A moment later, I actually did find it there.  

    A similar thing happened when I was working with a group on the Final 6 at http://www.thestonemonument.com , and I misinterpreted a teammate’s message to mean that he had found the answer.  Moments later, I found the answer myself.

    Somehow if you can be convinced that a solution is attainable (especially by someone like yourself), it seems like it can actually improve your ability to find it.  The human mind is so capable, but so much of that capability seems out of our control.

    The rest of this article was really fascinating as well.  The idea of knowledge lost, things that technological wonders that we still can’t figure out and recreate even in our “modern” age, it’s all very romantic and a bit depressing.  Will our generation have its own volume of knowledge forgotten in a hundred years or so, or will a combination of globalization and data storage through the internet and computers help connect the people who value knowledge that tends to get lost like this and keep it from fading away?

  9. David Pescovitz says:

    Errors in Barnum and Kabuki fixed. 

  10. David Pescovitz says:

    Starting here, you can see lots of photos from John’s workshop that Noah Webb snapped for my feature on John in MAKE several years ago: 
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/23739734@N08/2262206752/in/photostream/

  11. That_Anonymous_Coward says:

    I so want to see the teddy bear illusion…

  12. penguinchris says:

    I found the interview fascinating, but at the same time infuriating, because there are descriptions in the text of things that make you really, really want to see them. And then the accompanying photos are of completely different things! Almost all of the most enticing things from the text don’t have photos or video!

    • Ripcord2 says:

      Agreed, that drove me nuts, too.  Although, what drives me the most nuts is that we don’t learn how the Turk works, we don’t really have details to show that he REALLY figured out how the Turk works (either some way for it to work, or evidence that it’s how the original worked), and that the lack of this info wasn’t really addressed in the article (even a tongue-in-cheek “like any good magician, Gaughan isn’t revealing the trick just yet” or “wait for the book” or something, just “Yeah, this is a really good illusion” and the subject is dropped).

      • Ripcord2 says:

        A trip to Wikipedia shows me that the Turk workings are well-understood and well-described in public already.  So some of my frustrations with the article are wrong, or at least misdirected.

        Still, it would have been a more satisfying read if the author added any details or allusions to how the Turk worked (instead of just “so how the fuck does it work?”), and pressed Gaughan to be more specific about WHICH innovations in the Turk were ahead of their time, etc.  As it is, the article/interview just seems like a collection of mostly vague anecdotes.

  13. wysinwyg says:

    No mention of Edgar Allen Poe’s encounters with a similar device?

    Maelzel’s Chess Player

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