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Wolfgang von Kempelen: builder, inventor, pioneer

POLY-HISTORIAN, inventor, hydro-electronics pioneer, translator, publicist and researcher in phonetics: that is how Bratislava native Wolfgang Kempelen is typically remembered. He was born in Bratislava, then called Prešporok, Pressburg or Pozsony, depending on one’s language, in Janauary 1734, and died 210 years ago, on March 26.

POLY-HISTORIAN, inventor, hydro-electronics pioneer, translator, publicist and researcher in phonetics: that is how Bratislava native Wolfgang Kempelen is typically remembered. He was born in Bratislava, then called Prešporok, Pressburg or Pozsony, depending on one’s language, in Janauary 1734, and died 210 years ago, on March 26.

On the corner where the streets Dunajská and Klemensová meet, there stands a burgher house in which he spent most of his life. His father was a senior customs official, promoted among nobility. Von Kempelen studied philosophy and law in Gyor and Vienna, and he spoke eight languages, including German, Hungarian and Slovak.

Soon after graduation, he became a secretary of the Hungarian court chamber. Empress Maria Theresa appointed him as the head of the salt mines for the whole Kingdom of Hungary. In this post, he was credited with improving working conditions for miners and increasing their labour productivity.

His abilities also extended to scientific and technological inventions: in the park of the imperial Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, he constructed a hydraulic fountain. When Bratislava Castle’s well dried up, he created a sophisticated system of pumps that brought water up from the streets below. He also built the irrigation system in the Žitný Ostrov region near Bratislava, the TASR newswire wrote.

In Vienna, von Kempelen introduced hi “chess machine”, which brought him global fame. The machine, consisting of a life-sized Turk figure sitting at a desk with a chessboard, was able to play chess against human opponents (whom it often beat), including prominent personalities like Empress Catherine II and Benjamin Franklin. The Turk responded to any attempt at cheating by returning the chess piece to its previous position or by sweeping all the pieces from the board.

Though in its day the mechanics of the Turk remained a mystery, it was later revealed that a skilled human chess player was hidden inside, operating the machine from within. Writer Edgar Allen Poe referenced the Turk in his short story, Van Kempelen and His Discovery, according to TASR .

Dubbed the founder of phonetics, von Kempelen’s explorations into human speech led to his creation in the 1790s of the Speaking Machine, a manually operated speech simulator, and his pioneering book, The Mechanism of Human Speech. Von Kempelen also construed a machine to enable the blind singer Maria Paradise to write. In 1796, after he had fallen out of favour with the court, von Kempelen retired. Eight years later, on March 26, 1804, he died in Vienna, aged 70.

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