- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 30, 2002

By Tom Standage
Walker and Co., $24, 272 pages, illus.

The Turk was a fraud, but it would prove an extraordinarily fertile one.The chess-playing machine, featuring a life-sized mannequin in exotic Oriental garb seated behind a wooden cabinet, made its debut in 1770 at the court of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa. Over the next eight decades, it would astound audiences across Europe and America, create a virtual industry of skeptics trying to divine its secrets, and make its influence felt in ways its Hungarian creator never imagined.
The Turk's apparent prowess at the chessboard also provoked the same kind of unease among 18th-century Enlightenment philosophes that the IBM program Deep Blue's victory over human chess champ Garry Kasparov would inspire more than two centuries later.
As engagingly retold in Tom Standage's "The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine," the Turk would make its impact felt in the modern computer, the modern circus, even the modern detective story. A technology writer for the Economist magazine, Mr. Standage has made a specialty of uncovering the overlooked precursors to many of today's technological marvels.
In "The Turk," where figures as diverse and eminent as Ludwig van Beethoven, Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great and Napoleon have at least cameo roles, the author may have found his most promising subject.
Like today's video-game programmers, the 18th century tinkerers who fashioned elaborate automata helped inspire serious technological advances from apparently frivolous pursuits. Before even introducing his title character, Mr. Standage brings alive a forgotten world of mechanical singing birds, rotating tea caddies, flute-playing boys, even a digesting duck, honoring them as the "forgotten ancestors of almost all modern technology."
Such creations were the playthings of the aristocracy, but they would have a far-reaching impact on the Industrial Revolution just then (literally) gathering steam.
One consequence of the rivalry between the period's automaton marketers "was the development of new machine tools (such as the milling machine) and novel techniques (such as the use of multiple cams on a single shaft to enable complex synchronized movements) that could be applied to industry," the author notes.
It was the display of one such qausi-scientific amusement at a gathering of the imperial court of Maria Theresa in late 1769 that would inspire Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian-born civil servant, an engineer of note and a tinkerer of true genius, to construct the Turk. Claiming he could do better, he retreated to his workshop at his home in Pressburg and returned to the court six months later with his creation.
Moving its gloved left hand and defeating virtually all comers at chess, Kempelen's masterwork created an immediate sensation. An instinctive showman to boot, the inventor would open the cabinets and drawers beneath the automaton, revealing a complicated set of gears and an (apparently) empty central chamber. With an elaborate candelabra providing illumination nearby, he would whirl the contraption completely around on its castors as the doors flapped open, theatrically close up the box and start the game.
The secret was well, perhaps best not to give it away here. In any case, Kempelen's technical virtuosity modern magicians consider him a pioneer of some of their most basic techniques is at best half the story, for the idea that a machine could actually be fashioned to play such an intellectual, rule-based game stirred something in the minds and imaginations of the thousands who flocked to see the Turk play.
Charles Babbage, the Englishman considered the father of the modern computer, was entranced by automata and saw the Turk firsthand as a boy when it was on display in London. In Boston in 1835, the elaborate presentation that always accompanied performances of the Turk made a deep impression on young P.T. Barnum, who sought out the man then exhibiting the machine another larger-than-life figure named Johann Nepomuk Maelzel for promotional advice.
And a year later, a 26-year-old Richmond writer named Edgar Allan Poe published one of the most careful and penetrating attempts to expose the Turk's secrets, rejecting any mechanical explanation and noting that Maelzel's top assistant was nowhere to be seen when the machine was performing.
Notes Mr. Standage: "The format of Poe's analysis of the Turk is widely regarded as the prototype for his later mysteries, and the essay functions as a trial run for the didactic literary voice of Dupin," the sleuth in Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."
Although the outlines of the secrets of the Turk had been largely puzzled out, partly through leaks by the operators, a full explanation of how Kempelen's ingenious deception worked did not appear until three years after the chess-playing machine perished in a fire at a Phildelphia museum in 1854.
But the Turk's imaginative heritage lived on, both in the speculations on artificial intelligence it helped to provoke and in the massive Manhattan Project-scale effort computer programmers have devoted to the efforts to make a chess-playing machine. In a quick survey of Alan Turing's thinking test and the Kasparov-IBM match, Mr. Standage's final chapters have a bit of a tacked-on feel, but just as Kempelen claimed to do two centuries ago, the author of "The Turk" manages to bring a remarkable machine to life.

David Sands is diplomatic correspondent for the foreign desk of The Washington Times.

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