The Chess Player: The First Computer Game in History

One of Leonardo Torres Quevedo's most futuristic and striking inventions heralded a new discipline: Automatics.

By Torres Quevedo Museum

Museo Torres Quevedo

Ancient picture of the First Chess Player Ancient picture of the First Chess PlayerTorres Quevedo Museum

Essays on Automatics

In January 1914, 30 years before modern computability theory, Torres Quevedo published a prophetic essay on automatics in the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences Journal. It was entitled "Automatics. Its Definition. Theoretical Extent of Its Applications."

Public Works Magazine - November 1914 Public Works Magazine. Page 1Torres Quevedo Museum

His writings detailed the theoretical foundations of automatics; presented a project involving systems that could do arithmetic using digital processes; introduced the idea of switching circuits using relays; and proposed a simple automaton controlled by electromechanical systems, which he believed to be the future.

Torres Quevedo believed that automata would have feelings and be sensitive to their surroundings, as well as having limbs allowing them to carry out different operations, and the energy required to do so. Above all, they would be able to discern or choose between different options—the main objective of automatics.

Public Works Magazine - November 1914 Public Works Magazine. Page 2Torres Quevedo Museum

What he called "automatics" arose with the aim of studying the processes that could be applied to building automata with a relatively complex relational ability.

Public Works Magazine - November 1914 Public Works Magazine. Page 6Torres Quevedo Museum

The complexity of this invention led to him build a more advanced machine that could make decisions: the chess player.

Ancient picture of the First Chess Player - Back viewTorres Quevedo Museum

The First Chess Player

In "My Inventions and Other Pages for General Dissemination" (1917), Torres Quevedo explained his theories on automatics, outlining his creation of the chess player.

Diagrams of the First Chess Player Mechanisms and connections diagram of the First Chess PlayerTorres Quevedo Museum

In it, he explained that he built the chess player to demonstrate his idea that the intellectual capacity of machines needed to be improved so they could substitute humans in certain tasks that had, until then, been the exclusive preserve of human intelligence. As a result, man could be freed from certain burdens.

The Turkish chess playerTorres Quevedo Museum

The chess player was nothing like the large dolls that had previously been shown playing games of chess and which, like the famous "Turk," were actually a hoax.

Torres Quevedo wanted to build a machine that knew what it was doing when it played, and could observe its opponent's freely chosen moves and respond appropriately.

First chess player - Complet deviceTorres Quevedo Museum

Leonardo Torres Quevedo built his first chess player in 1912. It was an experimental model that he then presented in Paris in 1914.

The chess player did not play a whole game but instead played an endgame involving a simple checkmate move of rook and king versus king. The machine played with the white pieces, which were moved using a complex shaft and drum mechanism.

Ancient picture of the First Chess Player - Back viewTorres Quevedo Museum

The chess player caused quite a stir in its day. It was the first electromechanical machine to play chess and one of the first developments in artificial intelligence.

First chess player - Detail viewTorres Quevedo Museum

The machine played chess, "thought," and moved the pieces thanks to the complex mechanism that can be seen in the image.

Second chess player - Closed second chess player viewTorres Quevedo Museum

The Second Chess Player

In 1920 Torres Quevedo built his second chess player in the Automatics Laboratory, and made significant improvements to its appearance.

Second chess player - Opened second chess player detail viewTorres Quevedo Museum

As an automaton, however, it offered no real improvement on the first model. It was more of a scientific toy designed to demonstrate the possibilities of Torres Quevedo's general automatics theory.

Second chess player -Opened second chess player general viewTorres Quevedo Museum

The second chess player used electromagnets underneath the board, giving the impression that the pieces were moving by themselves. This caused a great sensation among the public.

Second chess player - Second chess player internal viewTorres Quevedo Museum

The more elaborate version of the chess player had 2 sliders in the positions of the pieces in play, one horizontal and one vertical. The automaton played using an algorithmic problem to determine the move it would make.

Second chess player - Errors and checkmate indicators detailTorres Quevedo Museum

Torres Quevedo's chess player could detect wrong moves made by its opponent and announce them with an illuminated sign. On the third wrong move, it stopped the game and a new game had to begin.

Second chess player - Closed second chess player viewTorres Quevedo Museum

The chess player could checkmate the black king in a maximum of 63 moves, producing sound and light signals when it did so. It also had a built-in phonograph that said "checkmate."

Second Chess Player Demonstration (no audio)Torres Quevedo Museum

The machine was unbeatable. It defeated Norbert Wiener, one of the fathers of cybernetics, at the first cybernetics congress in Paris. It was also invited to play one of the greats in the history of chess, Tartakower, who also lost.

Spanish brochure for the Universal and International exhibition of Brussels in 1958Torres Quevedo Museum

It is worth highlighting the international reach that the chess players had. The first model caused a stir in 1913, and in 2013 they were recognized as the first ever computer games in history. The second model was displayed at the Brussels World's Fair in 1958.

Second Chess Player working demonstrationTorres Quevedo Museum

Leonardo Torres Quevedo's son Gonzalo traveled the world giving demonstrations of the chess player, generating great excitement wherever he went.

Credits: Story

Torres Quevedo Museum (Madrid)
School of Civil Engineering
Technical University of Madrid (UPM)

Director: Francisco Javier Martín Carrasco
Secretary: Felipe Gabaldón Castillo
Museum Manager: Manuel G. Romana
Editing: Miriam Guerrero Pérez
Texts: Miriam Guerrero Pérez and Consuelo Durán Cermeño
Advisors: Francisco González Redondo, Antonio López Vega, and María Pascual Nicolás
Documentation: Manuel Romana García, Consuelo Durán Cermeño, Miriam Guerrero Pérez
Image Sources: Museum collection, Francisco González Redondo Collection, Manuel Romana Collection, National Newspaper Library, Public Works Journal
Video Source: YouTube

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps