In the context of the simultaneous exhibition “8 Objects, 8 Museums” by the Leibniz research museums, the Deutsches Museum in Munich presents a research project regarding a speaking machine, which is considered the oldest of its kind.
Kempelens „Schachtürke“ war ein Apparat, der vorgab, Schach zu spielen. Er bestand aus einer Puppe und einem Kasten, in dem sich ein aufwendiger Mechanismus verbarg, mit dem die Figuren bewegt wurden. Natürlich steckte in dem Kasten ein Mensch, der auf raffinierte Weise verborgen war. Viele beschäftigten sich mit dem Rätsel, doch dauerte es lange, bis dieses enthüllt wurde.
Kempelen was intent on demonstrating the seriousness of his speaking machine and responded with his book “Mechanismus der menschlichen Sprache” (Mechanism of Human Speech and Language). On more than 450 pages, he examined the origin of speech, its sounds and the human speech organs. At the centre is the chapter dealing with the “Speaking Machine,” in which he describes his research and various devices. Finally, he offers a detailed description of his latest attempt, including numerous scale drawings. This was meant to facilitate replication and further development of the machine.
The computer tomography formed the basis for understanding the machine and for creating a replica. Transect images represent each level in a distortion-free manner, which can be used to obtain the measurements necessary for building the replica. The images were particularly helpful to gain insights about the inaccessible parts in the speaking machine’s interior.
Various scientists and workshops at the museum as well as external experts collaborated in the construction of the replica. In this, traditional craftsmanship techniques were used as well as modern manufacturing methods. In order to allow a view into the exciting interior, the replica, in deviation from the original, is built with transparent walls.
A highlight of the research process was the systematic experimenting with the replica. This provided answers to questions that had been a mystery to science until then: What is the effect of various techniques, e.g., when using the bellows? As with a musical instrument, playing the device involves a learning process – without a teacher. It became apparent that the speaking machine’s functional range is smaller than originally thought. It can say “mama”, “papa”, “oma” and similar basic words (see audio recording).
The note was attached to the device at a later time – presumably, it only became necessary once a direct link to Kempelen no longer existed. To determine when the note was attached, the paper, the ink and the writing need to be examined and historical photographs and potential comparison material must be researched.
The melodies of the life-sized trumpet player automaton by Friedrich Kaufmann (1785-1866) are encoded on pinned barrels. Contemporaries were deeply impressed by the virtuosity of its playing and discussed why the machine was able to play notes impossible to achieve by human trumpet players. The excitement was so great that is was suggested to replace human trumpet players with mechanical counterparts. Today, the trumpet player is housed in the Deutsches Museum.
The more than 100,000 objects in the collections of the Deutsches Museum include a wide variety of different items such a scientific instruments, all kinds of machines, vehicles, airplanes, musical instruments and household gadgets. Highlights include the first gasoline-powered car by Carl Benz, the Magdeburg hemispheres, the motorised aircraft by the Wright brothers, the U-boat U 1 and the first computers. Even today, adding to the collections forms one of the museum’s core tasks, and the collections continue to grow.
The research in the Deutsches Museum is based on specimens in the collection, such as the speaking machine, or is dedicated to preservation-related issues – e.g., how can objects made of plastic be preserved? Other projects go beyond the collections and examine scientific computing in Germany from 1871 to 1960 or environmental history. The latter led to the first exhibition on the Anthropocene.
“8 Objects, 8 Museums” is a collaboration project between the Leibniz research museums and the Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien in Tübingen in the Leibniz Year 2016.
Research project regarding the “Kempelen speaking machine” of the Deutsches Museum in Munich
All documents and photos:
Deutsches Museum, photos Hans-Joachim Becker
Kempelen self-portrait: Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest
Vaucanson, Mécanisme: University Library Erlangen
Project management: Silke Berdux
Replica: Alexander Steinbeißer, Claus Grünewald, Model building workshop, workshops for sculpture and electronics
Material examination: Dr. Marisa Pamplona Bartsch
Computer tomography: Augustinum Clinic, Munich
Text and object selection: Silke Berdux
Text: Silke Berdux, Stephan Speicher
Translation: Hendrik Herlyn