Today in 1854, the end of one of the great hoaxes of its day: a fire in a Philadelphia museum destroyed what people of that time thought was a super-intelligent chess robot.

It was known as The Turk, and it was the work of Wolfgang von Kempelen.

The inventor had been moving in some important social circles in the mid 1700s, including the empress of Austria-Hungary.

After watching an illusionist perform for the empress, von Kempelen said essentially, I can design a device that will be way more interesting than anything you or your court have ever seen.

In 1769, the device was ready.

It was a large wooden cabinet with a life-size dummy on the outside, and it played chess.

Somehow, a human could move pieces on its chessboard, and gears would turn and levers would move and the cabinet would make its own moves.

The device traveled all over Europe and the United States, playing against chess grand masters, scientists, even Napoleon one time.

It nearly always won.

There were skeptics from the start, but von Kemepelen would start each demonstration by opening up the cabinet to show there wasn’t any trickery going on underneath.

Except that there was: in a compartment that the public didn’t get to see was a chess expert.

There were magnetic discs in the base of the chess pieces, so when human players made moves, the man on the inside could watch the progress of the game and respond.

Nobody found out the secret for about 85 years, until the fire that destroyed the cabinet.

A man named Silas Mitchell, whose father had once owned the Turk, wrote an article explaining that the mechanical chess cabinet, was actually a human-powered hoax.

Today in 2011, people in a skyscraper in Seoul, South Korea, reported the building shaking like they’d been in an earthquake.

Except that when engineers investigated, they found it wasn’t seismic activity at all.

A group of Tae Bo enthusiasts were working out so hard that they hit the building’s resonance frequency, and caused a 39 story building to shake for 10 minutes.

How a Phony 18th Century Chess Robot Fooled the World (

Korea solves mystery of shaking skyscraper (SF Gate)

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Photo by Carafe at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.