the time, elaborate mechanical toys were a popular form of entertainment
in the courts of Europe, though the technology they embodied was soon to
be put to more serious uses. So Kempelen intended his Chess-playing
machine to do little more than amuse the court and advance his career by
impressing the empress. But instead his automaton unexpectedly went on
to achieve widespread fame throughout Europe and America, bringing
Kempelen both triumph and despair.
its eighty-five-year career the automaton was associated with a host of
historical figures, including Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great,
Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Babbage, and Edgar Allan Poe. It was the
subject of numerous stories and anecdotes and inspired many legends and
outright fabrications, the truth of many of which will never be known.
The Chess player was, in fact, destined to become the most famous
automaton in history. And along the way, Kempelen's work would
unwittingly help to inspire the development of the power loom, the
telephone, the computer, and the detective story.
modern eyes, in an era when it takes a supercomputer to defeat the world
Chess champion, it seems obvious that Kempelen's Chess-playing machine
had to have been a hoax-not a true automaton at all but a contraption
acting under the surreptitious control of a human operator, like a
puppet dancing on a string. How, after all, would it have been possible
to build a genuine Chess-playing machine using eighteenth-century
clockwork and mechanical technology? But during the eighteenth century
automata of extraordinary ingenuity were being constructed and exhibited
across Europe, including Jacques de Vaucanson's mechanical duck,
Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz's harpsichord player, and John Joseph Merlin's
devices seemed to offer limitless new technological possibilities. So
the notion that Kempelen's machine really could play Chess did not seem
totally out of the question. Even among the
skeptics who insisted it was a trick, there was disagreement about how
the automaton worked, leading to a series of claims and counterclaims.
Did it rely on mechanical trickery, magnetism, or sleight of hand? Was
there a dwarf, or a small child, or a legless man hidden inside it? Was
it controlled by a remote operator in another room or concealed under
the floor? None of the many explanations put forward over the years
succeeded in fully fathoming Kempelen's secret and served only to
undermine each other.
it is only recently, following the construction of a replica of the
automaton, that the full secret of its operation has been uncovered.
By choosing to make his machine a Chess player, a contraption
apparently capable of reason, Kempelen sparked a vigorous debate about
the extent to which machines could emulate or replicate human faculties.
The machine's debut coincided with the beginnings of the industrial
revolution, when machines first began to displace human workers, and the
relationship between people and machines was being redefined. The Chess
player posed a challenge to anyone who took refuge in the idea that
machines might be able to outperform humans physically but could not
outdo them mentally.
reactions it inspired thus foreshadowed modern reactions to the
computer, over 200 years later. And the automaton's curious tale,
running in a parallel course alongside the prehistory of computing but
connecting in a few key places, has now assumed a new significance as
scientists and philosophers continue to debate the possibility of
machine intelligence. Kempelen never gave his
automaton a name, but its distinctive oriental costume gave rise to a
nickname almost immediately, and it is known to this day as the Turk.
This is the story of its remarkable and checkered career.
Reprinted by permission of Walker & Company
from their edition of "The
Q & A with Tom Standage, author of The Turk:
"The Life and Times of the Famous
Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine."
Q: When did you first hear about the Turk?
can't remember exactly, but it was probably when I was a teenager, and I
first got interested in artificial intelligence. I had a book called The
Policeman's Beard is Half-Constructed, which contained poems and prose
written by a computer program called Racter.
I spent several months
working on my own software to do the same sorts of things: hold
conversations, construct sentences, write poems, and so on. I also wrote
programs that could make logical deductions based on simple statements
and generate horoscopes. I read around the subject of machine
intelligence generally, and it was probably then that I first came
across the Turk.
Q: What was it about the Turk's story that
particularly interested you?
What appealed to me was the way in which this automaton prompted a
debate, in the late 18th century, about whether a machine could think or
not. I loved the idea that people were debating the possibility of
thinking machines over 150 years before the first digital computers were
like to think that the "artificial intelligence" debate is a modern
phenomenon, but it's not. I'm rather fond of collecting examples of this
kind of thing-historical precursors of modern scientific and
technological breakthroughs. My first book, The Victorian Internet,
looked at the parallels between the telegraph networks of the 19th
century and the modern Internet.
My second book, The Neptune File, was
about how the planet Neptune was detected in 1845 by mathematical
analysis of its effects on other bodies-which is how astronomers are now
detecting planets around other stars.
Q: The Turk is a detective story as well as a book about the history of
technology. How did you piece together the Turk's somewhat mysterious
The biggest problem was distinguishing fact from fiction. There are lots
of myths and legends surrounding the Turk, many of which are routinely
reported as fact. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica from 1911, my
favorite snapshot of the Victorian worldview, has a completely erroneous
explanation of its secret based on a story put about by the magician
Robert-Houdin in the 19th century.
von Kempelen, the Turk's creator, is almost universally referred to as a
baron, but he wasn't one. This kind of thing happens repeatedly, so I
had to go back to the original reports and work through them in
chronological order to see what could be trusted. It was then possible
to see mistakes and fabrications propagate from one account to another.
went back to old journals and sources in English, French, and German,
and communicated with a researcher in Budapest, who translated excerpts
from Hungarian sources into German for me. I also visited the Library
Company of Philadelphia, which has a huge archive of Turk-related
talked to the members of what I call the "Turk mafia"-a group of
magicians, Chess experts and academics, most of whom communicate with
each other, and all of whom are passionately interested in the Turk and
its story. I've even ended up bidding against members of the Turk mafia
when Turk-related items come up for sale on eBay.
Q: Why were so many people prepared to believe that the Turk was
There seem to have been a number of reasons. The Turk's first visit to
Paris, for example, coincided with the first public demonstration of a
hot-air balloon by the Montgolfier brothers. If flying machines, which
were supposedly impossible, could in fact be built, then why not a
technology was advancing quickly, the industrial revolution was getting
started, and displays of mechanical toys of amazing complexity were very
popular. The way in which the Turk was presented made a big difference
too. John Gaughan, a Los Angeles magician, has reconstructed the Turk.
And when you see it playing, even
if you know the secret, it's really convincing. It seems to tap into a
really fundamental human compulsion to believe that it's real.
Q: Do you believe a "thinking machine" will be possible any time soon?
all depends how you define "thinking". I go along with Alan Turing, the
great British mathematician, who sidestepped this philosophical question
with his "Turing test": he defined a thinking machine as one that can
convince someone that it is a human in a written question-and-answer
other words, for practical purposes, a machine that appears to be
intelligent-that can answer questions, or drive a car in response to
spoken directions, or whatever-is as good as a machine that is "really"
intelligent. The philosophers can go off and argue about whether or not
it's really thinking, or has a mind, or whatever, but from an
engineering point of view it's what the machine can do that counts.
expect we'll see machines like this in the next few years: speech-driven
PCs, personal assistants, that sort of thing. They will appear to be
thinking. Will they be HAL-like artificial minds? No. But they'll still
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Standage was born in London and studied engineering and computer theory
at Oxford University. Since graduating, he has covered science and
technology for a number of newspapers and magazines, including The
Guardian, The Independent, Wired, FEED, and Prospect. Former Deputy
Editor of the Daily Telegraph's technology section, he is now Technology
Correspondent for The Economist.
His first two books, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the
Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers (Walker &
Company, 1998) and The Neptune File: A Story of Astronomical Rivalry and
the Pioneers of Planet Hunting (Walker & Company, 2000), were published
on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Turk: The Life and Times of the
Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine (Walker & Company, 2002)
was published as The Mechanical Turk: The True Story of the
Chess-Playing Machine that Fooled the World by Penguin in the UK in
Tom Standage lives in Greenwich, England, with his wife and daughter.