Wolfgang von Kempelen

How funny it’ll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downwards! The antipathies, I think…
Alice In Wonderland

Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804)
Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804)

The Austro-Hungarian versatile nobleman, scholar, architect, and inventor, Wolfgang von Kempelen, was mainly known for his fraudulent chess-playing Turk automaton, created in 1769. The Turk was considered the most famous illusion in history (it was exhibited with great success in Europe and USA until late 1854 when it was consumed in a fire in Philadelphia), and actually, Kempelen never said that his illusion really played chess by itself. He said that it was “a very ordinary piece of mechanism—a bagatelle whose effects appeared so marvelous only from the boldness of the conception, and the fortunate choice of the methods adopted for promoting the illusion.” We are not going to examine the Turk however, but Kempelen’s Mechanism of Human Speech, which appears to be the first successful speech synthesizer.

Kempelen’s machine was described in 1791 in the published in Vienna book Mechanismus der menschlichen Sprache nebst der Beschreibung seiner sprechenden Maschine. Kempelen certainly was not the first man, who dreamed to create a “talking machine”. The reproduction of the sound of words by mechanical means was tried many times before.

In the XIII century, Albertus Magnus, one of the most universal thinkers of the Middle Ages, is recorded as having made a mechanical automaton in the form of a brass head that would answer questions put to it. Almost at the same time, such a contraption was also attributed to Roger Bacon. In the XVII century Athanasius Kircher had affirmed that it was possible to produce a head that moved the eyes, lips, and tongue, and, by means of the sounds which it emitted, appeared to be alive. He began such a device to distract Queen Christina of Sweden, but apparently, it was never successfully completed.

The Kempelen's machine for "vox humana"
The Kempelen’s machine for “vox humana”

A similar project was attempted in 1705 by Johann Valentin Merbitz (1650-1704), rector of the Kreuzschule of Dresden, who devoted five years to it. The next major advance in this field was made in about 1770 by Friedrich von Knauss, who constructed not one but four speaking heads, but his project was not completely successful. A similar device was made in the 1770s by the French educator Abbé Charles-Michel in Paris. Numerous others constructed speaking heads within the next decades, but never with any marked degree of success (with one exception—Joseph Faber).

In 1780, the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, Russia, under the guidance of Leonhard Euler set up a prize for answering the following two questions:
1. What are the nature and the character of the vowel letters a, e, i, o, and u, which so significantly differ from each other?
2. Is it possible to build instruments in the manner of those organ pipes which are known under the term “vox humana” to express the sound of the vowel letters a, e, i, o, and u?

The German scientist Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723-1795) won the prize for answering these questions. He provided pipes that generated the requested vowels. Although his approach can be regarded as an important step towards mechanical speech synthesis, those pipes did not show any similarity to vowel production in a human vocal tract. Furthermore, they only generated static, isolated vowels. With the help of a sort of ‘organ’, an individual key for every single vowel controlled a separate pipe.

A common view of Kempelen's machine
A common view of Kempelen’s machine

In contrast, von Kempelen took an important step forward. He recognized the central role of coarticulation and built this idea into his machine. He said: “Now I started to understand that the single letters could be invented but, in the way I did it, never joined together in syllables, and that I had to follow nature which has only one glottis and only one mouth out of which all sounds are emitted and only for this reason can connect with each other.”

Kempelen successfully finished the construction of his speaking machine in 1778, and the machine was documented in the newspaper literature of that time. The first picture of the machine was given by Karl Hindenburg in 1784. From 1782 to 1784 Kempelen was granted a sabbatical by Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II during which he undertook a European journey exhibiting both of his automata. He went through Switzerland, Paris, and London and visited the German fairs at Frankfurt, Dresden, and Leipzig on his way back to Hungary.

The leading ideas behind Kempelen’s approach to a speaking machine can be summarized as follows:
• Since speech sounds are only discernable in relation to one another you have to use a single glottis and a single mouth
• The mouth and tongue are in continuous motion producing obstacles for the sounding air
• And since it is almost mathematically proven that speech = voice passing through openings it follows that for a speaking machine you need nothing else but
• a lung
• a glottis
• a mouth

Kempelen didn’t construct his speaking machine on the base of acoustic theories but went the engineering way of analysis-by-synthesis, namely trial, and error. He was mainly interested in the audible result that should be reached by a simple mechanism as close as possible to our articulatory apparatus (see the lower images) on the one hand and playable like a musical instrument on the other.

Kempelen's membranous glottis model (left) and his possible solution for a mechanical tongue (right)
Kempelen’s membranous glottis model (left) and his possible solution for a mechanical tongue (right)

Kempelen classifies the vowels according to the width of the lip channel giving a ranking of A > E > I > O > U and the width of the so-called tongue channel that can be interpreted as horizontal tongue position. He goes on to remark that although he tried to produce the different vowels at the same pitch the vowel with a smaller tongue channel seemed to be higher in pitch.

The final version of Kempelen’s machine is preserved to this day in the Department of musical instruments of the Deutsches Museum in Munich (see the lower image). This machine differs from the one described in the book in the presence of a handle, to be operated with the palm of the right hand, by which the oscillating length of the reed can be controlled during speech production. In this way, it can be simulated as a natural course of intonation.

The speech synthesizer, designed by Kempelen
The speech synthesizer, designed by Kempelen

Kempelen’s synthesizer was the first that produced not only some speech sounds but also whole words and short sentences. Kempelen believed that it was possible to acquire skill in using the machine within three weeks, especially if one chose to synthesize sentences in Latin, French, or Italian. German von Kempelen was considered much more difficult to synthesize because of its many closed syllables and consonant clusters.

There is no doubt, that Kempelen’s book Mechanismus der menschlichen Sprache nebst der Beschreibung seiner sprechenden Maschine was a genuine milestone in the history of phonetics, incorporating many insightful observations on articulatory mechanisms, whereas the speaking machine clearly was a milestone in audio engineering.

Biography of Wolfgang von Kempelen

Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804)
Wolfgang von Kempelen

Johann Wolfgang Ritter von Kempelen was born on 23 January 1734 (baptized in St. Martin’s Cathedral under the name Wolfgangus Franciscus de Paola Joannes Elemosinarius) in Preßburg, Habsburg Empire (now Bratislava, Slovakia). He was the son of the noble court counselor and controller of the tax office since 1715 Engelbert Kempelen (1680–1761) (of Irish descent), and his wife Anna Terézia, the daughter of the former mayor of Preßburg Christoph Spindler. The native house of Kempelen is still preserved in Bratislava (see the photo below).

Wolfgang was the youngest of three brothers. The first brother, Andreas Johann Christoph von Kempelen (1716-1752), studied philosophy and law, was secretary of the ambassador in Constantinople and fought in the war of Silesia. He died in 1752 from a lung disease, just after he was appointed as the private teacher of the Austrian heir Prince Joseph. Wolfgang’s second brother, Johannes Nepomuk Joseph von Kempelen Barón de Pázmánd (28 Nov 1725-31 Mar 1801 ), also served in the army and was promoted to the rank of Major General.

Wolfgang Kempelen attended primary school in Preßburg, and in 1850 went to Győr for his secondary education. After finishing secondary school, the choice was not easy, as many things interested him—he wanted to study physics, mathematics, natural sciences, architecture, literature, or even music. Some sources mention he studied philosophy and law at Vienna University but the lists of enrolment show no entry for Kempelen.

The native house of Wolfgang Kempelen in Bratislava
The native house of Wolfgang Kempelen in Bratislava

It is known, that Kempelen was a remarkable polyglot. He was fluent in eight languages in addition to his native German—Latin, Hungarian, French, Italian, Slovak, English, Irish (Gaeilge), and Romanian.

After a long journey throughout Italy, visiting Rome and Naples, among other places, in 1855 Kempelen took part in the compilation commission to translate the Codex Theresianus (the Empress Maria Theresia’s civil law book) from Latin to German. Everybody was satisfied with his prompt and punctual work, and soon Kempelen became the Hungarian court’s advisor, and later in 1857 the secretary.

In 1766 Kempelen was appointed as the director of the Hungarian salt mines. In 1768 he became settlement commissioner for the Banat region, where the Vienna court carried on an intensive settlement policy to repopulate the provinces at its southeast border, to a large extent with Germans. He was responsible for the settlement of 37000 families, organizing communities, and designing houses for the settlers. He also managed to introduce a new crop, flax (to produce linen) and built a silk factory. Around Timisoara, the main city of Banat, Kempelen directed draining the swamps and rebuilding the roads and schools. Thus Banat was completely reborn. Kempelen’s numerous visits are reflected in three substantial reports to the Vienna court in 1768, 1769, and 1770 in which he gave an account to the repopulating commission, presented a plan for a systematic organization of the Banat, and described the local mines and institutions. Maria Theresia was greatly satisfied and, in 1771, granted 1000 Gulden for his services and an annuity of the same sum.

Kempelen's chess playing illusion—the Turk
Kempelen’s chess-playing illusion—the Turk

In the autumn of 1769, Wolfgang von Kempelen was invited by the Empress to attend magnetic experiments shown in Vienna by the French illusionist François Pelletier. He went and saw the Empress impressed by the demonstration, but he was not impressed and said he could invent a machine far more surprising within half a year and commenced work on the chess-playing android, an automaton for the enjoyment of the court (see the nearby drawing).

In 1770 his masterpiece was first demonstrated to the Empress in Vienna. In a very short time, this machine became world famous, and the whole of Europe wanted to see it. No automaton of the XVIII century was so frequently described. Many people strove to figure out the machine’s secret, and already in 1785 someone guessed there was a man hidden in the cabinet, who moved the figures, and this was the holy truth.

In 1770 Kempelen continued with his engineering work, designing a pontoon bridge over the river Danube in Preßburg (see the nearby image).

The Kempelen's bridge over the Danube in Bratislava (circa 1770)
The Kempelen’s bridge over the Danube in Bratislava (circa 1770)

In 1772, when the castle of Preßburg was rebuilt, Kempelen was asked to construct a separate water supply for the castle. Taking advantage of a well on the bank of the river Danube, water was transported by copper pipes in a special tunnel by pressure pumps driven by horses, the altitude was about 70 m and the capacity was one bucket per 1.5 minutes.

In the same 1772, Maria Theresia decided, with the help of French gardeners, to turn the Schönbrunn wild park into a beautiful garden. Kempelen received his new assignment: he had to provide for the water supply of the garden’s jewel, its fountain, and the water cascades. In October 1772, the fountain with its self-regulating water pump was inaugurated. Later in 1780, Kempelen designed two steam hydraulic machines for the same purpose.

Self portrait and signature of Wolfgang von Kempelen (charcoal drawing; Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest)
Self-portrait and signature of Wolfgang von Kempelen (charcoal drawing; Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest)

In 1774, Kempelen helped the Preßburg people once more: he established the first pawn shop in the country, which was a popular alternative to the local usurers.

In the same 1774, Maria Theresia caught smallpox, but she still insisted on taking care of her governing tasks; so, she asked Kempelen to design a mobile bed, easy to move from one room to another, in which she could lie, sit, write and read comfortably.

In 1776, Kempelen convinced the court, that the University in Nagyszombat had out-grown the city, and had become obsolete. He succeeded and obtained financial help to organize and direct the moving of the University to the Buda castle, and gave special attention to the library.

In the late 1770s, Kempelen built two steam engines. The first one was constructed near Stubentor in Vienna. Later, this machine was used for building the Franz Canal in Hungary. His machine was better than James Watts’s, but he lacked the money to develop it further.

In 1778, Maria Theresia’s godchild, Marie-Therèse Paradis, was introduced to Kempelen. The 19-year-old pianist, singer, and composer was very intelligent, but because she was blind, she could neither read nor write. The Empress asked Kempelen to help Paradis. First, Kempelen taught her the basic units of reading and writing, using three-dimensional shapes. This young girl was the first ever to study the alphabet with three-dimensional type. In 1779, Kempelen built for her a special press with movable type and a letter case. Still in that year, at Kempelen’s request, the court allowed the publishing of the first Hungarian newspapers.

Buda Castle Theatre, designed by Kempelen
Buda Castle Theatre, designed by Kempelen

After Preßburg, Kempelen planned two water pumps for Buda. Later, he drew the first version of the steam turbine, and in 1788 or 1789 received a patent from Emperor Joseph II for 12 years for his invention to drive all kinds of mills, and machines. The model can be seen in the National Engineering Museum’s collection.

Following his work in Buda, Kempelen received another architectural commission—planning the Sava-Adria Canal (a channel that is to connect the Danube with the Adriatic Sea), which was never realized. Later Kempelen took part in the reconstruction of the Buda Castle. On 25 October 1790, the Buda Castle Theatre (see the nearby image) was finished according to his plans. For the first time in history, Hungarian could be heard on stage in a Hungarian theatre.

Kempelen commenced preliminary work on his mechanical speech machine in 1769. Possibly to counteract some doubts about the credibility of his ingenious apparatus, he published a detailed description in 1791, in his chef-d’oeuvre The Mechanism of Human Speech. The Englishman Wheatstone, the German Posch, and the Austrian mathematician Joseph Faber were amongst the first to utilize Kempelen’s invention.

Kempelen's little poem "Die vier Jahreszeiten", decorated by himself.
Kempelen’s little poem “Die vier Jahreszeiten” was decorated by himself.

Outside of scientific life, Kempelen also dealt with the arts. He wrote poems (see the nearby manuscript), epigrams, dramas, and musical plays for which he composed the scores. Moreover, he illustrated his poems. In 1767, his comedy Das Zauberbuch (the Magic Book), Kempelen’s presentation of white and black magic was staged in Preßburg, and his melodrama Perseus and Andromeda was publicly performed in Nationaltheater, Vienna in 1781. In addition, he was also a talented amateur etcher and engraver. From 1789, he was an honorary member of the Vienna Academy of Arts.

In 1798, after 43 years of service, Kempelen was retired with an annuity of 5000 Gulden and the title of a Knight of the Holy Roman Empire.

Kempelen’s private life however was not a happy one, as although he had a very good home life, his work often took top priority and he was badly stricken as fate has decreed it.

On 6 September 1757, in Vienna, Wolfgang Kempelen married Maria Franziska Piani, lady-in-waiting of Archduchess Maria Carolina Ludovika (Queen Maria Theresia was present at the wedding, albeit incognito). Unfortunately, Franziska died only several months later, of smallpox, and it’s said that Wolfgang disappeared into his workshop for months out of grief, distracting himself by learning woodworking, clockmaking, and dozens of other skills.

In 1762 Wolfgang Kempelen married Anna Maria Gobelius, companion of the wife of Count János Erdődy. Of the five children born in the family between 1763-1771, only Mária Terézia (1768–1812) and Karl (Károly) (1771–1822) reached adult age. The first three children—Julianna (born 1763), Marie-Anna (b. 1764), and Andreas Christian (b. 1766) died shortly after birth.

Just before Kempelen’s death on 26 March 1804, probably because of his reformist thoughts, Emperor Franz II canceled the annuity. This remarkable inventor, after a fruitful life abounding in experiences, died highly esteemed in his 70th year in Alservorstadt near Vienna.