Grey Room

Automaton Religion and the National Body: Ajeeb in Brazil

Paul Christopher Johnson

Cabinet card of chess automaton “Ajeeb the Wonderful,” Eden Musée, New York, 1886. Photograph by Falk, published by F.O. Chamberlain. Detail. TCS 1.183, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University.


A giant “Turk,” a chess-playing automaton, sits atop a compartment announced by a beckoning door. Such near-human attractions proliferated in late-nineteenth-century urban life, tagged with exotic orientalist titles. Most famous among them was Wolfgang von Kempelen’s chess-playing Turk, which enjoyed multiple lives, including matches against Napoleon and several tours across the United States. Von Kempelen’s machine, purchased by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, found success in Paris (1817), London (1818), Amsterdam (1821), and other European metropoles before arriving in New York. An even later model named “Ajeeb” was brought to Brazil and set to work in 1896. This article shows how the work the automaton did in Brazil was different from its roles in Europe and the United States. It amused and bemused, but it also helped to set new religious agents and practices into motion.