Cartwright suggested that Arkwright ought to get busy inventing a mechanical loom. His companions scoffed at the impracticality of the idea. Knowing nothing about either weaving or machines, Cartwright called attention to the chess-playing automaton built by Baron Ludwig von Kempelen, which had recently been exhibited in London:
Now you will not assert, gentlemen, said I, that it is more difficult to construct a machine that shall weave, than one which shall make all the variety of moves which are required in that complicated game.Later on, recalling this conversation, Cartwright gave the matter more thought and came to the conclusion that such a machine was indeed possible. He hired a carpenter and proceeded to build a prototype, having "never before turned my thoughts to any thing mechanical, either in theory or practice, nor had ever seen a loom at work, or knew any thing of its construction." Needless to say, the first loom was rather crude but Cartwright persevered and in August of 1787 patented a loom, "nearly as they are now made," he wrote in a letter to Dugald Bannatyne, author of the Encyclopaedia Britannica article on "Cotton Manufacture," published in 1818.
In his communication to Bannatyne, Cartwright didn't say if he ever found out that the chess-playing automaton that inspired his invention was an elaborate hoax – a puppet operated by a man concealed in the device's cabinet. In an essay about the chess-player, published in 1836, Edgar Allan Poe observed, "we find every where men of mechanical genius, of great general acuteness, and discriminative understanding, who make no scruple in pronouncing the Automaton a pure machine." If these assumption had been correct, the chess-player would undoubtedly be "beyond all comparison, the most astonishing of the inventions of mankind." According to Poe, though:
The first attempt at a written explanation of the secret, at least the first attempt of which we ourselves have any knowledge, was made in a large pamphlet printed at Paris in 1785. The author’s hypothesis amounted to this — that a dwarf actuated the machine.… This whole hypothesis was too obviously absurd to require comment, or refutation, and accordingly we find that it attracted very little attention.
In 1789 a book was published at Dresden by M. I. F. Freyhere in which another endeavor was made to unravel the mystery…. His supposition was that “a well-taught boy very thin and tall of his age (sufficiently so that he could be concealed in a drawer almost immediately under the chess-board”) played the game of chess and effected all the evolutions of the Automaton. This idea, although even more silly than that of the Parisian author, met with a better reception, and was in some measure believed to be the true solution of the wonder, until the inventor put an end to the discussion by suffering a close examination of the top of the box.
These bizarre attempts at explanation were followed by others equally bizarre. Of late years however, an anonymous writer, by a course of reasoning exceedingly unphilosophical, has contrived to blunder upon a plausible solution — although we cannot consider it altogether the true one.After reviewing these previous attempts at explaining the secret of the Automaton, Poe endeavored "to show how its operations are effected, and afterwards describe, as briefly as possible, the nature of the observations from which we have deduced our result." After enumerating 17 observations, Poe concluded that the decisive clue is that the Automaton plays with his left arm – "for the Chess-Player plays precisely as a man would not":
Let us, for example, imagine the Automaton to play with his right arm. To reach the machinery which moves the arm, and which we have before explained to lie just beneath the shoulder, it would be necessary for the man within either to use his right arm in an exceedingly painful and awkward position, (viz. brought up close to his body and tightly compressed between his body and the side of the Automaton,) or else to use his left arm brought across his breast. In neither case could he act with the requisite ease or precision.Although a plausible conjecture, Poe's conclusion seems at first hardly conclusive. A right-handed Automaton could be operated easily enough by a left-handed person. As it turns out, lefties tend to be more heavily represented among chess players than in the general population. But they are still outnumbered by roughly five to one. As Poe's character, Dupin, was later to remark in "The Murder in the Rue Morgue," "there is such a thing as being too profound. Truth is not always in a well." Superficial as it may seem, odds of 5 to 1 in hiring an operator for the puppet are probably sufficient cause for constructing a left-handed automaton.