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THE TURK by Tom Standage


The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine

by Tom Standage

Pub Date: April 25th, 2002
ISBN: 0-8027-1391-2
Publisher: Walker

English technology journalist Standage (The Victorian Internet, 1998, etc.) recounts the quirky history of a mechanical chess-playing machine.

After 1735, machines that simulated animal life, known as automata, became more complex and popular. A mechanical duck that flapped its wings and digested food drew large audiences, as did the Panharmonicon, a small orchestra that played Beethoven. The most interesting of these automata was “the Turk,” designed by Wolfgang von Kempelen to please his boss, Austro-Hungarian Empress Maria Theresa. Debuting in Vienna in 1770, the Turk was a life-sized figure of carved wood dressed like an oriental sorcerer (complete with turban) who sat behind a cabinet topped by a chessboard. To dispel suspicions of a hidden human puppet-master, Kempelen began the show by opening the empty cabinet; he wound a spring, and the Turk's left hand started the game. The Turk made a brilliant success, and Standage credits him with making waves in numerous ponds. Celebrities sought him out; Ben Franklin and Napoleon lost, ungraciously, to the wooden man. Maria Theresa’s successor, Joseph II, requested that Kempelen make a goodwill tour of Europe in 1781. Britons like Edward Cartwright, inventor of a cutting-edge power loom, and Charles Babbage, creator of a proto-computer called the Difference Engine, praised the Turk for inspiring their imagination and ambition. When the Turk came to America in 1834, P.T. Barnum appreciated new owner Johann Maelzel's showmanship and manipulation of the press. Edgar Allan Poe wrote an early detective story attempting to discover the Turk's methodology; he correctly described parts of it, but not the entire process, which was revealed by the last owner’s son only in 1857, three years after the Turk's death by fire in Philadelphia.

Good fun, and a gentle reminder that science and showbiz have been happy partners for a long time. (25 b&w illustrations, throughout)