Staff Pick: The Turk
(Walker and Company, New York, 2002) by: Tom Standage
The curtains opened to reveal an unusual sight -- a Turkish gentleman, dressed in flowing robes and a bright turban, seated at a wooden desk holding a chess board. One by one, members of the audience came on stage and played chess with this figure, and one by one, they lost. After each victory, their inscrutable opponent would nod his head and say "Check" -- the only word he ever spoke. And each win drew more and more applause.
An unusual way to spend an evening? Well, consider this:
The event took place in 1770 in Vienna, Austria.
The Turk -- as the chess-playing figure came to be called -- was not human. Instead, he -- or it -- was an automaton, a life-size robot conceived and constructed by Wolfgang Von Kempelen, an official with the Austrian royal court.
And yes, this is a true story.
Many years before electricity, cameras, or computers, Kempelen's Turk could play one of the world's most complicated games, a feat that required the automaton to somehow "see" his opponents' moves and counter them. It's no surprise, then, that the Turk became an international sensation, drawing huge crowds in France, England, and even America.
Author Tom Standage takes readers back to a fascinating time, when men and women were first exposed to the wonders of science. To modern eyes, "in an era when it takes a super-computer to defeat the world chess champion, it seems obvious that Kempelen's chess-playing machine had to have been a hoax." But to the Turk's contemporaries, it was stunning proof that "the possibilities offered by mechanical devices seemed endless."
That doesn't mean they didn't question how it worked. Was the Turk truly a thinking machine? Was it operated by remote control? Was a player somehow concealed inside? One match was closely observed by members of the Academy of Sciences, who later reported, "A large number of savants who saw it in Paris were not able to discern the means by which it was done."
The Turk enjoyed a long and prosperous life, baffling investigators for almost a century. Standage writes that "the chess player was destined to become the most famous automaton in history," stumping such players as Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Catherine the Great, even Edgar Allan Poe.
So where is the Turk today? Did anyone ever figure out his secret?
Well, like all good magicians, we won't give the trick away.