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

Tom Standage, Author . Walker $24 (288p) ISBN 0-8027-1391-2

In Vienna in the spring of 1770, Empress Maria Theresa watched in astonishment as a machine dressed in stylish Turkish garb defeated one of her noblemen in a game of chess. The machine, called "The Turk," was the brainchild of mechanical genius (and imperial court counselor) Wolfgang von Kempelen. In a career that would span eight decades and five owners, the Turk toured Europe and the United States, taking on some of the world's top chess players and inspiring several of the great minds of the era. Standage, technology correspondent for the Economist and author of The Victorian Internet, has written a comprehensive, engaging account of the Turk's remarkable "life"—part history, part science and part detective story. How did the Turk work? Its owners remained silent, but speculation was widespread. A young writer named Edgar Allan Poe claimed that the Turk was operated by a person hidden inside it. Others, like English mathematician Charles Babbage, were intrigued by the principle that the Turk represented: that machines could actually think. (Babbage would go on to establish the theoretical underpinnings for the modern computer.) Among the Turk's illustrious opponents were Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte (who cheated) and P.T. Barnum. The Turk caused a sensation wherever it went and was the subject of numerous books and newspaper stories. Its celebrated career ended in 1854, when it was destroyed in a Philadelphia fire. It wasn't until 1857, however, that the Turk's secret was finally revealed . Standage's highly accessible narrative—which calls to mind Garry Kasparov's historic chess loss to Deep Blue—should appeal to readers interested in the history—and mystery—of technology. 25 b&w illus. First serial to Wired magazine.(Apr.)

Reviewed on: 02/04/2002
Release date: 04/01/2002
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