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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Mystery of the Victorian Tic-Tac-Toe Computer

"The Turk", 1769 chess machine.
In 1769, Woffgang de Kempelen debuted a mechanical device known as "The Turk".   The Turk was a chess-playing mechanical computer.  It consisted of a large console with gears inside, and a chessboard on top.  Seated at the console was a robot, with a mechanical, human-like, arm that would pick up real chess pieces on a real board, and move them to a new square.  The Turk won the vast majority of games it ever played.  For almost seventy years, until 1837, The Turk dazzled crowds with it's amazing (and secret) engineering.

Until it was revealed to be a massive hoax.

There was a master chess player hiding inside the desk (he could move out of the way while the cabinet was opened and shown to be empty to the audience).  The Turk was a puppet, controlled by a device similar to a pantograph.  It was only because one of the puppeteer chess masters eventually spilled the beans that the hoax came to an end.  Of course, a machine that played chess was an impossibility in that era.  Many at that time believed it would never be possible.

Charles Babbage was probably not one of those skeptics.  He actually played The Turk (and lost) in 1820, and while he concluded it was a human player, it still inspired him to invent mechanical computers.  Babbage created early designs for calculating machines called difference engines in the 1820s and '30s.  He also created designs for more complicated machines that were very capable computers.  Or could have been, if they had ever been built.  Among the devices that Babbage designed was a machine that could play Tic-Tac-Toe.  Again, though, such a machine was not built in his lifetime.

The next great events in the world of computing and strategy games seemed to wait another century.  In the late 1930s, Alan Turing and Claude Elwood Shannon laid down the theoretical basis for modern computing.  Alan Turing built an actual electromechanical computer to break the german ENIGMA cypher machine.  Perhaps based on this reaserch, or perhaps simply because we had reached the right time in history, clever engineers gave us two computerized strategy games.  In 1940 and 1941, two different machines were created that could play the game Nim—the Nimatron, and the Nim Machine.  One of these is generally credited with being the first machine that could play a game of strategy.

The Nimatron, 1941 World's Fair.
So imagine my surprise when I stumbled across an article from the January 1879 Issue of the Journal of the Franklin Institute, in which "An Automatic Tit-Tat-To Machine" is described by Frank T. Freeland.  The article is an explanation of how the machine is to be built and how it will function.  But more than a mere design, the article states that the machine was built, and was able to successfully play the game.  Allegedly it never lost.

How is this possible?  Could such a machine exist, and yet escape the observations of decades of computer historians?  Perhaps, like "The Turk", this machine itself was a hoax?  At this point, I have no corroborating evidence, but I'll lay out the case for the machine's existence.

Francis Theodore Freeland was born in Philadelphia in 1859.  He attended the University of Pennsylvania where apparently his game machine was an undergraduate project in his senior year.  He graduated in 1879.  After graduation he stayed on for two years as an Instructor of Mechanics.  He was a member of the Engineer's Club of Philadelphia.  He wrote at least two more papers (Linkages for xm, American Journal of Mathematics, volume III, 1880 describing a machine for finding roots; and A Machine for the Solution of the Equation of the Nth Degree, Engineers and Engineering Volume 2, 1880) and gave several talks (such as calculating the weekday from a date, and space-filling calculations for sphere stacking).  In 1880, Engineers and Engineering mentioned that he exhibited a machine for solving quadratic equations, although I haven't been able to find any signs of a paper on this, or even if the machine worked on digital or analog principles.  But it's also an indication that his mechanical and mathematical skills were well-demonstrated.

According to a footnote of the Freeland's paper, the machine and his paper ended up at the Franklin Institute by the recommendation of William D. Marks.  Dr. Marks was a professor of mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania.  Eventually he would be an honorary lifetime member of the Franklin Institute, and the Whitney Professor of Dynamical Engineering at the University, a very prestigious position.  These facts, more than anything else, lend a great amount of credibility to the device's proper functioning.

Still, I can't find any corroborating evidence.  While I have found a few articles in other sources about this device (Gentlemen's Magazine, American Stationer, and a newspaper in Illinois), they all seem to be rehashes of the Franklin Institute article, rather than independent stories based on seeing the machine.  This is the most troubling issue.  Wouldn't such a machine be major news, and create a big stir?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps with the folklore of "The Turk" still looming in the culture people were skeptical and unimpressed.

During his time as an instructor, Mr. Freeland took a post-graduate course (which I assume means an entire program, not merely one class) in mining engineering.  He moved to Colorado, where he became a well-known figure in the mining world, publishing papers, writing, filing at least two patents, and making a fairly large pile of cash.  He retired young and travelled the world.  Unfortunately he also died fairly young, at the age of 48, during a return visit to Philadelphia.  His obituaries talk at length about his mining contributions, but no mention at all is made of his Tic-Tac-Toe machine or other mechanical contributions.

Mr. Freeland apparently had a most promising career ahead of him as a mathematician and mechanical engineer.  Why did he move to Colorado and take up mining?  Was it simply a desire for fortune?  Unfortunately we're not likely to find answers on these questions.

The next example I can find of a Tic-Tac-Toe machine is a 1949 "Noughts and Crosses" machine built by Donald Watts Davies in Great Britain.  It included some sort of lighted display grid, and a plugboard for making moves (see it in action).  This was followed in 1952 with a Tic-Tac-Toe machine made from phone relays by the Bell Telephone company to demonstrate the power of their new relays.  If his device really worked, Mr. Freeland was seventy years ahead of his time.

Davies' 1949 Noughts and Crosses machine.

As for Freeland's device, I've only given a brief look at the design.  One positive is that the "user interface" looks like something that anyone could use.  It has a Tic-Tac-Toe board with mechancial Xs and Os that slide up and down in front of openings.  To play, you would move the sliding X/O into place yourself.  It seems that no help was needed by the player.  Without a human operator between the player and the machine, it would seem fairly difficult to pull off a hoax.

Cutaway front view of Freeland's machine, showing the X/O sliders.
Another positive is that the machine wasn't that showy.  "The Turk" was all about the visual performance, and (of course) the inner workings were kept secret.  Here the inner workings for this machine were published and reviewed by the best mechanical minds of the day (decades after difference engines were designed and built).  (And as an aside, the Nimatron pictured earlier does not survive this standard very well—it was very showy, large enough to hold a person, and supposedly had a built in delay to simulate the time it would take a person to play.  Hmm.)

So far, I'm fairly optimistic that this was a real working machine, but I have to remain open to the possibility that this machine was simply another "Turk".  The obvious next step is to analyze the device in more detail and see if it could actually function.  Stay tuned.


  1. Very interesting post. My middle name is Freehand along with my father and son. Francis Freehand raised my great grand father in colorado in the mines. I am doing a fair amount of research on him and this is by far one of the most interesting. Love to know if you ever found out more on him.

    1. Freehand or Freeland? Probably very different people. I do have quite a bit of biographical information on F. T. Freeland, and among other things he never married or had children. If you still think there might be a connection I can send you my notes on him.

  2. Same guy. I miss typed it. Francis Freehand miner and valedictorian at University of Pennsylvania who went to colorado. My great grandfather Skipper was shipped out west to live with him at the age of 5 in Aspen. Taught Skipper mining who later went onto Mexico and then settled down in Jackson Hole, WY and started the Triangle X Ranch longest running dude ranch in the country i believe - I am fifth generation. Fascinating stuff you had uncovered. Love to learn more.


    1. Here's some of it:


      "Engineering and Mining Journal" Volume 85, 1908

      "Mining and Scientific Press", Volume 96 February 15, 1908

      "The Proceedings of the Colorado Scientific Society", 1908

      Albuquerque Morning Journal, 1/28/1908, page 2 - "Denver Man Found Dead in Philadelphia Hotel

  3. Did you find or create a description for operation of Francis Freeland's tit-tat-to machine? His three-state sliders are similar to those I'm using in my tic-tac-toe computers. One is semi-automatic using layers of printed film to determine the computer's move. The other uses spheres to automatically detect board state and drive the machine's response.

    Bob S.

    1. I'm working on a replica, or two really — one virtual, one physical. At this point I have a pretty good understanding of how about 90% of it works. But there's a lot of work ahead of me building it, and then I'll be able to do a proper write-up.

    2. I found the 1879 machine description by searching for "Franklin Institute, Tit-Tat-to". A table describes operation when the machine goes first. Operation for the human going first must be read from a representation of the cylinder. There are a couple errors in both. I've entered all the logic into a spreadsheet and have been working on how a marble-operated machine might use that logic. Let me know if you'd like the spreadsheet. I would appreciate a review of my copy and corrections.

  4. Looking forward to seeing your replicas!

  5. Thomas thank you for the reply - I would love to hear how your replica worked out.


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