Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Wolfgang von Kempelen, 28 May 1783

From Wolfgang von Kempelen1

ALS: American Philosophical Society

A Paris ce 28 Mai 783


Si je ne vous ai averti plutot de mon retour de Versaille, et renouvellè ma priere d’assister a une representation de mon automate joueur d’échec,2 ce n’etoit que pour gagner encore quelques jours, qui m’etoient necessaires pour avancer une autre machine très interessante,3 que j’ai a l’ouvrage, et que je voudrois vous faire voir en même tems. Ayez donc Monsieur la bonté pour moi, de fixer le jour et l’heure, dans la quelle je pourrai avoir l’honneur de vous recevoir chez moi. Ma demeure est a l’hôtel d’Aligre rûe d’Orleans St Honorè. J’ai l’honneur d’être avec le Respect, et l’estime la plus parfaite Monsieur votre três humble et três obeissant Serviteur

DE Kempel

Addressed: a Monsieur / Monsieur Franklin / a Passy

Notation: De Kempel Paris 28 May 1783

1The inventor who had arrived in Paris from Vienna the previous month with a chess-playing “mechanical Turk,” a hoax which he claimed to be an automaton; see XXXVIII, 495–6.

2The “Turk” was first exhibited to great acclaim at Versailles before moving to Paris in early May, where it played a number of well-attended exhibition matches. By June 12, according to a journalist, it had mystified all the members of the Académie des sciences and all the best mechanicians of Paris: Bachaumont, Mémoires secrets, XXIII, 3–5. The top-ranked players defeated it but commended its performance; most notable among them was François-André Danican Philidor, the champion of all Europe, who supposedly played a match shortly before Kempelen left for England, c. September: Tom Standage, The Mechanical Turk: the True Story of the Chess-Playing Machine That Fooled the World (London, 2002), pp. 43, 45, 49–54.

3This was the elaborate speaking machine on which he had been working for over a decade; see XXXVIII, 496, and the references cited there. While touring Europe in 1783–84, Kempelen demonstrated the device to select audiences and sought the advice of scientists on how to improve it: Alice Reininger, Wolfgang von Kempelen: eine Biografie (Vienna, 2007), pp. 325–35. We have no record of when BF saw it, but he was sufficiently impressed that he recommended Kempelen as a “Genius”: BF to Brühl, Vaughan, and Whitehurst, all dated Aug. 22.

BF’s interest in speaking machines dates back to at least 1772, when he told Erasmus Darwin about a mechanical clock whose wooden sentry announced the hour of 12. Darwin himself had invented a speaking machine by 1770, which BF may have seen: XIX, 210–11; BF to Darwin, July 22–Aug. 1, 1772, published in Desmond King-Hele, ed., The Letters of Erasmus Darwin (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 64–5.

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