The first computer game in history is not displayed in an important museum in Silicon Valley, but stored in a basement of a separate building in the University City of Madrid. The toy, developed between 1912 and 1920, impresses, because it is infinitely more than a toy. It is a machine-with electromechanical systems today unusable-that posed an agonizing end to a game of chess. The human, with the black king as the only piece, faced the automaton, with a white tower and king. Whatever his rival did, the device always won, at most in 63 moves. And, then, a built-in gramophone proclaimed: "Checkmate!".
The machine, known as The Chess Player, was conceived by the Spanish inventor Leonardo Torres Quevedo, possibly one of the most unknown geniuses of mankind. He was born in 1852 in the Cantabrian village of Santa Cruz de Iguña, studied road engineering and spent only a few months in railroad work before abandoning them to "devote himself to thinking" about his "things". The first "thing" was the invention in 1887 of a ferry, a "vehicle that crosses the air, suspended from cables, between two elevated points of the ground". Even today, the one designed to fly over Niagara Falls, between Canada and the USA, still works.
The chess player was also revolutionary, but today can only be seen by requesting an appointment in a remote room of the School of Civil Engineering of the Polytechnic University of Madrid. "It is affectionately called Torres Quevedo Museum, but in reality it is a warehouse ", laments Francisco A. González, a historian of science specialized in the inventor. From today, however, this small and unknown museum will be opened to the world, thanks to an agreement with the US multinational Google that will allow a virtual tour from anywhere on the planet within an overwhelming interactive exhibition about human inventions.
"Torres Quevedo was ahead of his time," says González, from the Complutense University of Madrid. In 1948, he recalls, the American mathematician Norbert Wiener wondered in his pioneering book Cybernetics if it would be possible to build a machine that played chess. "Torres Quevedo had built it more than 30 years before!" Proclaims the Spanish historian.
In 1914, the Cantabrian inventor proposed a new science: the automatic. "Needed", wrote, "That automatons have discernment […]. It is necessary that the automatons imitate living beings, executing their actions according to the impressions they receive and adapting their behavior to the circumstances ".
"It is affectionately called Torres Quevedo Museum, but it is really a warehouse," laments a historian
"This is the first automaton in the history of mankind," says the engineer Manuel Romana pointing to a mysterious machine full of cables in the Torres Quevedo Museum. It is the first experimental prototype of The Chess Player, built in 1912. "One of the first manifestations of artificial intelligence", as confirmed by the virtual exhibition of Google. That same year of 1912 was born the British Alan Turing, internationally considered one of the fathers of artificial intelligence. When Torres Quevedo began playing chess against his own machines in his laboratory in Madrid, Turing was just a babbling baby.
Manuel Romana is since 2005 responsible for the small museum of the School of Civil Engineering. He does what he can. "The museum has no budget assigned," he laments. According to their figures, only about a thousand people, including groups of retirees, visited the room last year, despite the fact that admission is free.
In the store, not far from El Ajedrecista, is another of the great inventions of Torres Quevedo: the Telekino, considered the first remote control in history. Designed to handle dirigibles by remote control, the device sent orders with electromagnetic waves by means of a telegraph button and the receiving machine converted them into movement through a numeric code. In 1904, the inventor managed to move a tricycle in the Beti Jai Fronton of Madrid with this device. And, in 1906, King Alfonso XIII himself tried the telekino to move a boat full of people by the estuary of Bilbao.
"Science in Spain is named after Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the technology carries that of Leonardo Torres Quevedo. The two form the first division and below are, at an abysmal distance, all the others. And both should be in a headquarters of the National Museum of Science and Technology, "says the historian Francisco A. González. The legacy of Ramón y Cajal carries since 1989 packed in boxes in a building of the CSIC in Madrid. Torres Quevedo's collection, which he himself donated to the School of Civil Engineering in 1928, is practically forgotten in a building built in 1968 in the University City. "They do not know the museum or the teachers of the school," says González.
The new international exhibition of Google, entitled Once upon a try, digitize for the first time drawings and illustrations of the complex machines of Torres Quevedo. The exhibition -which includes other virtual visits to places associated with discoveries, such as the International Space Station and the European particle accelerator LHC– could help to recognize the figure of the Spanish inventor worldwide. When he died of old age in 1936, The New York Times public a brief obituary letting glimpse a certain skepticism about the capabilities of the Chess Player. Fifteen years later, in 1951, the same newspaper published another news: "A robot plays chess in Paris". It was Gonzalo Torres Quevedo, Leonardo's son, with the same machine that his father invented almost four decades before.