on 13 May 2003
Non-scientists should not be put off that this might be filed under science. It's an accessible, easy read that carries you along by the scruff of the neck as Standage unveils the truth behind the 18th century chess playing automaton. Was it an early version of IBM's Deep Thought computer or merely a parlour magic trick . . . or something of both and neither? Read to the end and find out the truth, touching along the way on encounters with the likes of Napoleon, Edgar Allan Poe and Benjamin Franklin. If only history had been this gripping at school.
on 16 June 2002
Tom Standage has taken a obscure mystery, the workings of the mechanical turk, and a made it into a thought provoking journey through 18th and 19th century history, with various asides on AI, automation, trickery and chess, which only reveals the trick in the penultimate chapter. Gripping stuff.
I forget when or where but, many years ago, I first learned about a chess-playing automaton in the 19th century. In Standage's book, I have finally learned "the rest of the story." The automaton (named "The Turk") attracted a great deal of attention and generated a great deal of controversy. Benjamin Franklin apparently played a game or two against it. In fact, "The Turk" is reputed to have defeated most of Europe's chess masters during a period which extends from 1770 until 1855. It attracted the attention of countless celebrities (e.g. Napoleon Bonaparte, Edgar Allan Poe, Catherine the Great, and Charles Babbage) and indeed, "The Turk" itself became a celebrity as did its inventor, Wolfgang von Kempelen. Was it truly a technological marvel, not only able to to move chess pieces but to formulate and then follow strategies which prevailed against most of the most skilled players? Or was it a hoax? It would be a disservice both to Standage and to his reader to say much more about this book, except that it is exceptionally well-written and combines the best features of a crackerjack detective story with the skills required of a world-class cultural anthropologist. Standage is a master storyteller; he tells the story of "The Turk" within the context of the Age of Victoria when the Industrial Revolution was well-underway and indeed thriving. Great stuff!
I enjoyed this book more than I'd expected. I don't play chess, but only a very basic knowledge of the game is required. At the same time those who are keen players will probably get more enjoyment out of the book than an onlooker.
The craze for automata during the late 1700s and 1800s is the main theme, with lots of material for steampunk writers and fans. People wanted to see clockwork and levers; they wanted to be entertained and convinced. When the Empress of Austria commanded, one somewhat reluctant manufacturer obeyed. He genuinely did construct fantastic works, but his task was to create a convincing fake which would fool the world. In the mechanical Turk - a seated figure dressed in the Turkish garb which was then all the rage - he devised a chess-playing automaton which set out to do this. The Turk toured Europe playing all comers, mostly winning, and later went to America, with long periods of inactivity.
I liked the tales of the better known people who played against or observed the Turk, and tried to deconstruct the problem. These include L' Empereur Napoleon, Babbage and Poe. Babbage was apparently inspired to start creating his own machines to perform intelligent skills, while Poe set out a case study of the mystery and all the clues he had observed.
After that, I liked best the revelations at the end of how the Turk was made to perform, who was actually playing the chess games and how they were found by the master showmen who presented the attraction.
This is an interesting and unusual book which throws a sidelight on aspects of the period not normally given to students, who just have to learn the wars and politics by heart and see little of the humanity. For this reason alone I commend the read. Tom Standage has written other works including An Edible History Of Humanity.
on 31 August 2011
One autumn day in 1769, Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria-Hungary, was being entertained by a visiting Frenchman. His routine, the details of which have not survived, was apparently somewhere between scientific demonstration and conjuring trick. She asked one of her civil servants, a certain Wolfgang von Kempelen, what he thought. He was not impressed. A machine, much more surprising than what they had just witnessed, could easily be constructed, he boasted.
Perhaps to Kempelen's surprise, the empress took him at his word and gave him six months to produce the machine, during which period he was relieved of his official duties. When it was demonstrated to the empress, there was no anti-climax, for what Kempelen had devised was a chess-playing automaton - or so at least it appeared. Over the next thirty five years, the machine toured the capitals of Europe, and could be beaten only by the greatest players.
After Kempelen's death, the machine was bought by Maelzel, remembered today as one of the pioneers of the metronome. A brilliant showman, Maelzel exhibited the chess-playing machine in various countries including the United States.
The operations of the machine remained unknown until after Maelzel's death, and even today some details are disputed (unfortunately, having been donated to a museum in Philadelphia, it was destroyed by fire in the 1850s).
The story of The Turk, as the chess-playing automaton was called, is a remarkably colourful one, with cameos from Beethoven, Napoleon, Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great, Charles Babbage and Edgar Allen Poe. There have been many articles providing speculations and explanations as to how it worked, and also a full-length book (by Gerald Levitt).
Standage's account of the story is notable not for any original research, but as an excellent exposition and synthesis of this earlier literature. As usual, he achieves the Reithian goals of informing and entertaining.
As a minor quibble, one might question whether Standage's identifications of various historical figures are necessary. Thus we get 'the composer Ludwig van Beethoven', 'the Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci' and so on. (As opposed, one assumes, to the tap-dancer Ludwig van Beethoven and the Danish pig-farmer Leonardo da Vinci).
In an age when chess-playing computers are hardly a novelty, it might be hard to imagine just how remarkable people found Wolfgang von Kempelen's automaton. Though little remembered beyond a handful of afficionados today, Kempelen's Turk was a remarkable novelty in its day, one that delighted the Habsburg court and was taken on a triumphal tour of Europe. After Kempelen's death, the Turk passed into the hands of a showman named Johann Maelzel, who again toured Europe with it before taking it to the United States, where it remained until its destruction in a Philadelphia fire in 1858.
Tom Standage describes all of this in an entertainingly-written account of the Turk. After a succinct account of its origins and the background of 18th century automata, he covers the Turk's history through the decades in an enthralling tale. Perhaps his greatest success is in keeping the explanation of exactly how the machinery actually played chess until the end, thus allowing the reader to share in contemporaries' amazement of, and speculation as to, the Turk's secrets. In doing so, he captures some of the wonder that people felt for something so commonplace today - an achievement as remarkable in its own way as Kempelen's device was in its day.
This sense of wonder is critical to understanding the Turk's broader impact on history. As Standage demonstrates, the Turk inspired Edmund Cartwright's automation of weaving, Charles Babbage's speculations in early computing, and even Edgar Allan Poe's invention of the detective story. Even after the Turk's demise, it continued to inspire attempts to build a chess-playing machine, attempts that the author goes on in to summarize in a concluding chapter. Such efforts, as Standage shows, address the ongoing question of the relationship between people and machines, one that makes the history of this unusual device relevant to readers even today.
on 21 January 2008
Of course, the lead role in this book is the mechanical Turk, a chess playing machine that baffled Europe around 1800. But the more interesting character is Wolfgang von Kempelen, who devised the Turk, and became its victim, because he was forced by an admiring Austrian emperor to travel around Europe with it, while he preferred to work on his speech machine.
Tom Standage has justly chosen not to start a quest to find out how the Turk worked. This has been done by Edgar Allan Poe in one of his first stories. Rather mr. Standage simly describes in detail what happened at the time, leaving conclusions to the reader, who cannot help to sympathize with Von Kempelen, a serious scientist who spend much of his life touring with a conjuring trick.
on 14 July 2008
As this is a book review then, having read the book I won't give away the secret of the Mecanical Turk! I really enjoyed this account by Tom Standage. It deals with ingenious inventors, eighteenth century automata, clever detective work and chess as well as of course the fascinating true story of the Turk ... Being a chess player it is interesting to read about what contributed in some way to modern chess computing ...
on 11 March 2013
An interesting read especially for all keen chess players. A book to be added to one's library. My wife, a non-chessplayer is also keen to read it.