This is a delightful book that takes one cultural artifact (a mechanical chess playing machine that looks like a human being and is dressed in oriental opulence, "The Turk") and follows its entire life, from its conceptualization and manufacture to its final demise in a fire in Philadelphia. The period of the Turk's life lasted 85 years, and the people who somehow met and interacted with it were such luminaries Napoleon, and Charles Babbage (inventor of the first computer, sort of), and P. T. Barnum. Edgar Allan Poe started an entire genre (the short detective story) by writing "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," in part inspired by the mental exercise of trying to figure out how The Turk worked. Silas Wier Mitchell, the famous American Civil War physician and neurologist, actually owned The Turk before donating it to the Chinese museum in which it finally perished. Literally hundreds of Europe's intellectuals, and crowned heads, and glitterati of one sort or another played chess against the famous automaton, and usually (but not always) lost the game. And nobody except the operators knew the secret of the machine.
The Turk was the work of Wolfgang Kempelen, an engineer and an aid to the Austro-Hungarian Empress Maria Theresa, who called him to court so that he could explain to her the magic and the related magnetic games that were being demonstrated by a Frenchman by the name of Pelletier in the various courts of Europe. Maria Theresa, being of a scientific mind herself, wanted a respected official to uncover the trickery (if any) involved in Pelletier's performance. Mr. Kempelen explained each act as it was being performed, and was so unimpressed by the whole show that he boasted that if he had six months of free time he would be able to construct a really impressive automaton that would outclass anything then being shown in Europe. Maria Therese took him up on the challenge, and ordered him to go home, build his marvel in six months, and forget his duties to the state during that period.
Six months passed and in the Spring of 1770 Mr. Kempelen arrived in court with the Turk in tow. It was a life-size wood carving of a man wearing Turkish garb, seated at a table, with only one movable arm (the left)with dexterous fingers, and with a fixed gaze that stared down at a chess board. On the night of the first demonstration, Kempelen wheeled the figure before the audience, opened the various doors of the table, showing an impressive set of elaborate and mysterious clockwork and allowing the audience to look through the various openings, shining a candle for behind, so that they would see they were either empty or full of wheels and cogs, but free of any human being. When he convinced everyone that there was nothing hiding inside the machine, Kempelen invited one of the courtiers to sit at the table and play against the Turk. He used a large key to wind it up, and when he released a lever the Turk moved his head as if scanning the board, and suddenly reached out his arm and moved a piece. The game had began! Every ten moves or so, Kempelen would wind up the mechanism again, giving it the additional energy to proceed with the game. The Turk, of course, won the match that launched his famous career.
The author follows this career carefully and only after the Turk's life was ended does he reveal the method used by Kempelen (and others that owned the automaton). That is fair enough, giving the book the measure of suspense it should have in order to keep the reader excited and able to create his or her theory about how the machine operated and hold it until the end of the book.
The book does not end with the demise of the Turk, but it extends into the realm of the Kasparov - Deep Blue matches of 1996 (Kasparov won) and 1997 (D B won). It is a thoroughly delightful book to get into, and a hard one to put down. Even after the secrets of the machine are revealed, one is left in utter amazement about the Turk and its rambunctious life.