794: The Turk by Tom Standage

by Gerard


794.17: Standage, Tom. The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine. New York: Berkley, 2003. 247 pp. ISBN 0-425-19039-0.

Dewey Construction:

  • 700: Fine Arts
  • 790: Recreational and performing arts
  • 794: Indoor games of skill
  • 794.1: Chess
  • 794.17: Special forms of chess

In 1769, the greatest invention of its age was introduced to the world. Hungarian engineer Wolfgang von Kempelen, trying to live up to a ultimatum that he couldn’t beat the best machinists and magicians of France, had built a chess-playing automaton. Never before had anyone seen anything like it; it was a wooden and metal Turkish man seated behind a chessboard containing a puzzling array of machinery.  It beat the players at Empress Maria Theresa’s court. It beat the street hustlers of Paris, the hoi polloi of London, and even graced the shores of the United States. And Tom Standage’s The Turk investigates its secrets.

Now, before we go on, rest assured that I won’t spoil the secret of the Turk. That’s for you to discover. When the Turk was trotted for the first time by Kempelen, it dazzled everyone. Thousands of folks came to the machine play and win. It could make spontaneous moves without direct contact, and even beat many good human players. The public couldn’t get enough of it. Every time Kempelen went to retire the machine, some great noble or leader would come into town and want to see it.

For eighty-five years, the machine passed from owner to owner and was exhibited for the masses. It became the Forrest Gump of the 18th and 19th centuries, playing against Benjamin Franklin and bemusing Edgar Allan Poe. Kempelen’s work inspired the Alexander Graham Bell as well as several imitation machines and stage plays. Each owner was, however, decidedly less solvent than the last. It eventually ended up in the possession of a club of owners who dismantled it and learned the full secret of the machine.

Standage’s history of the machine seems like one that should only last 20 to 30 pages, but his story is broad, and the breadth is necessary to really get a sense of the age. He discusses the history of automatons in the years leading up to the Turk and how this machine helped to eventually inspire the creation of Deep Blue, the IBM computer that played against and beat the grandmaster Garry Kasparov. The research is sound and even the machine’s contemporaneous detractors get equal billing in the book. Once I picked this one up, I plowed right through it. It reads fast and will do very well for either chess or micro-history enthusiasts.