Tuesday, June 19, 2012

THE TURK, by Tom Standage

No, this isn't The Lustful Turk and other Victorian smut. This is a modern look at a remarkable bit of history.

The full title is The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine, and it's a fascinating book. I've been intrigued by automata lately and I'd heard about the Turk years ago, and now I found out there's a few whole books about him. This is the easiest to find and thankfully it's a cracking good read.

The Turk was built in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian inventor who was hoping to impress Maria Theresa, the Queen of Hungary and Croatia, as well as Queen of Bohemia, and Archduchess of Austria. (Oh, those crazy Hapsburgs...) The Queen was interested in science and engineering and was amazed by the device. It took the form of a large box with a figure in Turkish garb sitting behind it, with a chessboard on top. Von Kempelen would set up the chessboard, open the doors to show the clockwork gear inside, close them again, invite someone to sit down, and then wind up the automaton. It then proceeded to play an impressive game of chess.

Sound unlikely? It amazed the court and made von Kempelen a celebrity. He soon became an influential engineer in Hungary, but was plagued by his creation; people kept insisting he show it and let them play against it. He took it on tours of Europe and during one of those, it played against Benjamin Franklin. Von Kempelen died poor in 1804, and his son sold The Turk to Johann Malzel, a musician and showman who made The Turk world-famous. He took it on more tours of Europe (it played a game against Napoleon Bonaparte, and won), and in North and South America. Edgar Allan Poe observed the Turk in action and wrote a memorable essay, "Malzel's Chess Player," in which he put forth his theory as to how it worked. Poe got the closest of anyone, but still missed a few things and his reasoning was often flawed.

Malzel died returning from South America, and The Turk eventually ended up, half-forgotten, in a museum in Philadelphia that was eventually consumed by fire, taking The Turk with it.

Naturally, it was a hoax with a human operator; that is common knowledge today. But it was fervently believed to be an actual automaton for a long time, which can be attributed to 18th century society being wowed with the possibilities of technology and thinking anything was achievable. As the 19th century dawned and more complicated machines became commonplace, like steam engines and locomotives, people began to realize that The Turk couldn't be an actual thinking machine and more blatantly suspected a hoax. (What's amazing is that some people today still believe it wasn't a hoax, as if that sort of advanced artificial intelligence technology was available in 1770!)

But I won't reveal some of the exact workings of the device; you'll have to read that for yourself. And a replica has been made that matches the original to the best of all reports.

Standage's book is a fun, zesty read that also looks at The Turk's role in the development of computers (it was an inspiration to Charles Babbage) and its legacy in the era of Big Blue and other chess-playing computers. The Turk was also an inspiration to the literary world. Many wrote about it or things like it, like Ambrose Bierce in "Moxon's Master" and John Dickson Carr in The Crooked Hinge. A few plays were written about it as well, none of them terribly accurate.

Search this out; it's in print and available in libraries as well.  And here's a video featuring the reconstruction:

And another of a charming model made of The Turk:

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