The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton


Wolfe's comments from the Introduction to Storeys from the Old Hotel

"'The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton' turns the idea we've just been talking about [re 'Straw]' on its head, asking 'What if an invention that did not in fact survive the fall of civilization (the chess-playing computer, in this case) were believed to have survived?'"


Set in Germany of a future world which has regressed to an 18th-century-like state of technology. The mountebank Heitzman visits the village with the eponymous machine, a supposed survivor from the age of computational miracles. It defeats Professor Baumeister, who buys it from Heitzman and then learns that actually it was the mountebank's assistant, Lame Hans, concealed inside, who was playing for the machine. Lame Hans agrees a plan with the Professor to double-cross Heitzmann, in which Hans will play against the machine with Gretchen, the tavern girl with whom he has fallen in love, concealed inside to play for the machine. The machine deviates from the agreed game, and at the end it is found that Gretchen has died of heat exhaustion, Hans presuming that the machine was actually playing by itself. The Professor though, speculates, that Hans has unrealized psychokinetic powers and was in effect playing against himself.


  • Wolfe foreshadows the ending when Gretchen says the brass chess-playing automaton "looks like a stove."
  • If Professor Baumeister's theory is correct, the power must be unconscious, because Hans apparently believed that the machine was genuinely successful in skillfully defeating him. His own theory was that Gretchen in her death-struggle may have kicked it into operation.
  • The machine is very much like the Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing machine most likely operated by a concealed dwarf. Edgar Allan Poe wrote about it in Maelzel's Chess-Player.

Unresolved Questions

  • Is Lame Hans aware of his psychokinetic abilities (assuming Professor Baumeister's theory is correct) by the end of the story?

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