One of the pleasures of working at the National Museum of American History is discovering the connections between the collections and research. A good example is my recent experience with Ajeeb, the famous chess-checker playing automaton. I learned about this amazing automaton while processing the William L. Bird Holidays on Display Collection. I was immediately smitten with Ajeeb, a ten-foot high, wax and papier-mâché mechanical wonder that won most every game of chess and checkers it played.

Ajeeb, also known as “The Egyptian,” was conceived of by Charles Edward Hooper of England in 1867. First displayed at the Crystal Palace in London, Ajeeb was brought to the United States in 1886 and featured at the Eden Museé, a New York City amusement place which opened in March 1884. Ajeeb is a descendant of earlier chess-checker playing automatons. In 1769, Wolfgang von Kempelen of Austria introduced the Mechanical Turk, which served as the inspiration for Ajeeb. Other automatons with similar abilities and names like Mephisto, Hajeb, and As-Rah also appeared. While the Ajeeb enjoyed a long stint at the Eden Museé (almost forty years), he was not the only Ajeeb on the circuit. Martinka & Company of New York, America’s oldest magic shop sold a chess-playing automaton in its 1898 and 1906 catalogs. Although we don’t know the price or sales figures, the idea that individual consumers could purchase their own Ajeeb is delightful.

The Ajeeb’s chess and checker playing prowess was greatly doubted and debated. Many believed Ajeeb was operated from an adjacent room; others thought that he had a magic brain. Indeed, inside the Ajeeb’s base, cleverly concealed by panels displaying complex machinery, were hidden operators maneuvering the arms, and carefully choreographing every move. The greatest wonder ever invented was an elaborate hoax—a great illusion that entertained crowds all over the world.

Lithographed trade card from Eden Museé, 1896. (AC0060-0000003-01)

Lithographed trade card from Eden Museé, 1896. (AC0060-0000003-01)

Months after discovering the Ajeeb in the collections I was talking with a colleague who was researching the early history of mathematical games played on computers. I mentioned my discovery and she shared my enthusiasm for this mysterious automaton. Several months later I found Ajeeb elsewhere in our collections. While examining a box about vending machines in the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana I found the Ajeeb on a trade card from the Eden Museé. To learn more about our collections, visit the Archives Center website.


“Eden Museé Faces Bankruptcy,” New York Times, p. 17, June 8, 1915.

Ensmenger, Nathan. Is chess the drosophila of artificial intelligence? A social history of an algorithm.  Social Studies of Science, 42 (1), pp. 5-30, 2012.

Kobler, John. “Where Are they Now? The Pride of the Eden Musee,” New Yorker, November 20, 1943.

[Trade catalogs from Martinka & Co.], January 27, 1898.

Extraordinary Attractions! Be Amazed! Must See!

Hidden Motors Give Life to Prehistoric Monsters. Robot Cow Moos and Gives Milk. Mechanical Monster Eats Girl on Movie Stage. These spectacles and more were created by Messmore & Damon, a New York firm that specialized in window displays and parade floats. Founded in 1916, the dynamic and creative duo of George H. Messmore and Joseph Damon designed and constructed parade floats, dioramas for museums, exhibits for expositions, displays for department stores, scenery, exhibits for corporate clients, and for film, theater, and television. Most of their parade and department store work featured animated mechanical devices.

1.Hidden Motors Give Life to Prehistoric Monsters, Popular Science Monthly, June 1933. (AC0846-0000002.tif)

Hidden Motors Give Life to Prehistoric Monsters, Popular Science Monthly, June 1933. (AC0846-0000002.tif)

Mechanical Monster “Eats” Girl on Movie Stage, Popular Science Monthly, October 1931.

Mechanical Monster “Eats” Girl on Movie Stage, Popular Science Monthly, October 1931. (AC0846-0000003.tif)

Messmore & Damon brought to life huge dinosaurs, tigers, mastodons, dragons, other monsters, and even cows. One of their creations was a life-sized (48 foot long, 9 foot high, 4,000 pound) mechanized reproduction of a dinosaur, Amphibious Dinosaur Brontosaurus (aka “Dolores” or “Dino”). It could laugh, breathe, roll its eyes, shake its head, and move its jaws. It was a must see. Created for the Century of Progress International Exhibition (1933-1934), “The World a Million Years Ago,” Dino was made of layers of chicken wire, canvas, rattan, papier-mâché and paint. A human ran a complicated series of motors, chains, ball bearings, gears, cranks, counterweights, and universal joints that worked in concert to create a spectacular experience. The dinosaur was capable of moving its head in all directions and it had a moveable jaw. George Messmore’s 1933 patent (US Patent 1,898,587) stated “the jaw was intended to hold a dancer so that the dancer may be lifted up by the animal for entertaining purposes.”  Dino hit the entertainment circuit after the Fair entertaining thousands at department stores and other venues. He even inspired an essay contest for youngsters who were asked, “What Would Happen if Dino Lived Today?”

Drawing for US Patent 1,898,587, February 21, 1933.

Drawing for US Patent 1,898,587, February 21, 1933. (AC0846-0000006.tif)

Drawing for US Patent 1,898,587, February 21, 1933.

Drawing for US Patent 1,898,587, February 21, 1933. (AC0846-0000007.tif)

For more information about Messmore & Damon, Inc., Records, visit the Archives Center and Holidays on Display, an online exhibition featuring Messmore & Damon.

5.Postcard, Amphibious Dinosaur Brontosaurus, 1933. (AC0846-0000009.tif)

Postcard, Amphibious Dinosaur Brontosaurus, 1933. (AC0846-0000009.tif)

Inventing on Wisconsin’s Waterways

I grew up in Wisconsin, a place well known for its waters and woods. It seems like you can’t go more than a few miles before running into a stream, pond, or lake. But little did I know that the waterways I grew up on were the same as those of an inventor and were the inspiration for his invention.

Ole Evinrude emigrated to Wisconsin in 1882 when he was five, growing up in Cambridge, WI, on the shores of Lake Ripley. Like Ole, I also grew up in Cambridge, went swimming and fishing in the lake, and enjoyed meals along its shore.

Sunset over a Wisconsin lake.

Sunset over a Wisconsin lake. By peterrieke (Balsam Lake Sunset) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cambridge is about thirty minutes from Madison, so I spent plenty of time not just at Lake Ripley but also on the four lakes the capital is built around. Ole spent plenty of time in Madison too, gaining experience with machinery from various positions in machine shops. In addition to his hands-on experience, he used the university’s library to teach himself advanced mathematics, mechanics, and engineering. After briefly working in Pittsburgh—where he had first hand experience working with steel—he returned to Wisconsin for positions building engines.

Both of my parents grew up in Milwaukee and most of my family lives still lives there. Ole moved to that city to work and began building his own engines during his spare time in the basement of his boarding house. All the times that I drove to and from Milwaukee (about an hour past lakes and woods) I never guessed that the blue waters of Lake Okauchee that I saw from the road was the site of an event that got Ole thinking about using his homemade engines to power boats in a new way. On an outing on Lake Okauchee, Ole, his future wife Bess, and some friends rowed their boat across the lake. They bought some ice cream that they intended to take back across the lake with them but it melted by the time they reached the other side of lake, two miles away). This inspired Evinrude’s idea to clamp a motor to the stern of a boat.

Although forms of outboard motors for boats had existed since 1896, and had even been patented in 1905, in 1907 Evinrude designed the first commercially and mechanically successful outboard motor. His outboard motor had a mechanical arrangement that became the standard for all outboard motors.

Outboard motor patent drawing.

Patent drawing for “Marine Propulsion Mechanism” by Ole Evinrude.

Evinrude tested his invention on the nearby Kinnikinnic River. Having myself canoed on the Kinniknnic on many occasions, with its mix of forested, beach, rock, and house lined shores, I can easily picture Ole’s first trial. Without a muffler, when the motor started it was so noisy that it brought dozens of people to the river bank. It obviously needed a little tweaking before being sold, but Ole was able to go about five miles per hour. Ole’s first motors (built in 1909) were all hand-built, weighed 62 pounds, and had two horsepower. They sold quickly and in 1910 Ole had nearly 1,000 orders. By inventing the first commercially and mechanically successful outboard motor Ole forever altered the boating world. Outboard motors can be easily removed for repairs, storage, or use on other boats. Can you imagine a world without water skiing or motor boat racing?

After World War I, Ole utilized new techniques and processes of using aluminum to develop a lighter (48 pounds), two-cylinder, three horsepower outboard motor. He also invented a quieter underwater exhaust system. This new motor was on the market in 1920. Over the years Ole continued to develop lighter motors with greater horsepower.

1910 and 1924 outboard motors.

Evinrude’s 1910 and 1924 motors. Courtesy NMAH Archives Center.

Wisconsin is known for its waters and woods. Growing up in a place where a body of water nearly is never far away is not only beautiful and enjoyable but inspiring. Ole Evinrude designed the outboard motor we use today, but perhaps Ole would have invented a motor for an entirely different purpose if hadn’t been surrounded by the waterways that we both grew up on.