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The Turk

by Tom Standage

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


The Turk by Tom Standage
Walker & Company, 2002
ISBN: 0802713912

Think back to the last time a display of technology truly amazed you. Perhaps it was the first Space Shuttle launch that left your jaw open and your eyes wide with wonder, or your first contact with a personal computer that set your imagination spinning. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, it was the artistry of mechanical engineers that drew crowds and fascinated European audiences.

State of the art clockwork toys for the time included ducks that could move with uncanny realism, dioramas illustrating historical events, and machines that could play wind instruments. As a relatively cheap form of entertainment, audiences would congregate to observe, marvel, and speculate upon these novelties.

In a boast to Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria-Hungary, Wolfgang von Kempelen claimed he could build a mechanical marvel the likes of which no one had ever seen. In 6 months, he had created what was to become the most renowned automaton in the world: A clockwork machine capable of playing chess against human opponents.

Nicknamed ‘The Turk’ (in reference to it’s oriental costume), von Kempelen’s creation immediately began to generate controversy. Critics were quick to denounce the machine as a hoax, arguing that machines lacked the forethought and imagination to play a game as sophisticated as chess. Hypotheses about the “trick” behind The Turk began to circulate, giving rise to more philosophical discussions pertaining to the possibility of machine intelligence.

Tom Standage has created an colorful and engaging historical account of the highlights of The Turk’s 85-year career, including interactions with some impressive historical figures, including Napolean Bonaparte, Catherine the Great, and Benjamin Franklin. The mysterious automaton captured the imagination of an 8-year-old Charles Babbage, and inspired the budding journalist Edgar Allen Poe. Thanks to the showmanship, ingenuity, and discretion of all of The Turk’s caretakers, he served not only to entertain audiences around the world, but helped lay the groundwork for serious consideration into the realm of artificial intelligence.
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