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

Standage, Tom
Walker & Company 2002
ISBN 0-8027-1391-2
262pp
Date finished: 2012-12-30

A history of the first chess-playing machine, von Kempelen's chess-playing automaton that first appeared in public in 1770, this book sits in the very tiny intersection of magic, computing, and chess. When the automaton was built, mechanisms were being used for automated musicians and tightrope walkers, robotic ducks, and other diversions. von Kempelen toured Europe with the Turk, and after his death it was purchased by Johann Maelzel, who took it on tour through Europe, England, and finally the US, until his death in 1838.

When the machine was being exhibited, there was much discussion of the chess-playing Turk and how it worked: did it actually understand the game, was it pre-programmed to carry out a sequence of moves, or was each move controlled by a person, either someone hiding inside or by von Kempelen or Maelzel themselves? It turns out that the Turk was in fact controlled by a person hiding inside, though no observers had its mechanism quite correct. Standage notes the irony: while the Turk was a fraud all along, its example led Edmund Cartwright to build an automatic loom and Charles Babbage to imagine his Difference Engine. An entertaining book.

Tagged: computing, games, history

Permalink: http://books.amk.ca/2012/12/The_Turk.html

%T The Turk
%S The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth Century Chess-Playing Machine
%A Standage, Tom
%@ 2012-12-30
%K computing, history, games
%G ISBN 0-8027-1391-2
%P 262pp
%I Walker & Company
%C New York
%D 2002

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