The Turk

Despite being an antique technology, automatons still manage to enchant us to this day. Considered the ancestors of our modern technology, automatons have been an object of fascination since they were first invented and remain a popular subject in fiction as well, such as Hugo by Brian Selznick. There is one automaton that perhaps inspires the most fascination of all: the Turk, a chess-playing automaton that was invented in eighteenth century Austria-Hungary by Wolfgang von Kempelen.

The Turk by Tom Standage is a biography of this remarkable machine that managed to astound – and confound – millions, playing against several famous figures in history including Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. Invented by Kempelen to impress Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria-Hungary, it was an immediate sensation and he would tour Europe showing off the Turk as it would play live chess games in front of crowds. The period in which it was invented was ripe for possibility: civilization was between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and the Turk was seen as an example of the kind of possibility that could be made with technology, inspiring inventions beyond its automaton and chess-playing origins, such as the power loom.

After Kempelen’s death, the Turk was nearly forgotten as  it was put in storage until it found a new owner and once again its beguiling magic mesmerized the world.

Despite being eventually revealed as an elaborate hoax, which is explained in Tom Standage’s book, it’s still a marvelous invention and still amazing to watch in action, even almost eerie, in this 15-minute video, below. The video seems to be from a documentary that sounds like it’s narrated by Morgan Freeman and also includes the author being interviewed. I’m afraid I don’t know what documentary this is from, so if someone knows, please let me know in a comment.

As I read The Turk and after I’d finished reading it, I was inspired to play chess again. Each chapter is introduced with a fun piece of chess trivia, whether an opening move, endgame, or puzzle (some of the names are especially enjoyable, such as one puzzle named after Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign) and epitaph from a well-known chess player as well as diagrams of particular chess moves.

Whether you like history, automatons, or chess – or all three! – The Turk is an enjoyable and engaging read. For those of you who like web comics, Sydney Padua (of Lovelace and Babbage comic fame) pointed me in the direction of this web comic about the Turk called Clockwork Game.