Review ~ The Turk

Cover via Goodreads

The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous 19th Century Chess-Playing Machine by Tom Standage

On an autumn day in 1769, a Hungarian nobleman named Wolfgang von Kempelen attended a conjuring show at the court of Maria Theresa, empress of Austria-Hungary. So unimpressed was Kempelen by the performance that he declared he could do better himself. Maria Theresa held him to his word and gave him six months to prepare a show of his own. Kempelen did not disappoint; he returned to the court the following spring with a mechanical man, fashioned from wood, powered by clockwork, dressed in a stylish Turkish costume—and capable of playing chess.

The Turk, as this contraption became known, was an instant success, and Tom Standage’s book chronicles its illustrious career in Europe and America over the next eighty five years. Associated over time with a host of historical figures, including Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Babbage, and Edgar Allan Poe, Kempelen’s creation unwittingly also helped to inspire the development of the power loom, the computer, and the detective story. Everywhere it went, the Turk baffled spectators and provoked frenzied speculation about whether a machine could really think. Many rival theories were published, but they served only to undermine each other. (via Goodreads)

Sometimes, I lose track of history. What existed when, for instance. I think of the age of machines and steam to be the 1830s-ish forward when in reality the beginnings of that technology stretches back at least 50 years. Rather sophisticated automata, for example, date back to the 8th century, though they really didn’t come into their own until a certain amount of miniaturization of parts was achieved. I picked up The Turk in order to learn some of the history behind the early 20th century devices I’ve been reading about; notably, Joseffy’s mechanical rabbit and duck.

The chess-playing Turk was an automaton illusion that premiered in 1770. It was a sensation. A machine that could think? Inconceivable! This is a concept that still causes a stir today.

One of the things that struck me while reading The Turk is how relatively slowly technology moved from the mid-1700s to the late 1800s. Many of the concepts behind industrialization were in place, but it seems that the social climate wasn’t right. Royal patrons sometimes favored entertainments over useful devices. Von Kempelen benefited from the Turk’s publicity, but also distinctly felt its shadow. He died poor when patronage was withdrawn.

The Turk outlived von Kempelen, but with help. The automaton was not a solo act. He required a stage manager with a certain amount of talent to present him properly and keep his mystique alive. Skepticism and theories followed the Turk and none ever correctly described his secrets. And, none ever really tarnished the Turk’s reputation. It’s that complicit willingness to be fooled that makes magic interesting.

Tom Standage does a great job introducing us to von Kempelen, the Turk, Maelzel, and the other men and women involved in this story. There were many myths to sift through, most of them perpetrated by the Turk’s PR machine. I’m not terribly knowledgeable of mechanical engineering and only passingly familar with chess tactics, but The Turk is incredibly readable. It’s a good story and Standage presents it in an easy and entertaining way.

Genre: Non-fiction
Why did I choose to read this book? Looking for mechanical duck info. Ducks are awesome.
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Yes, and quickly too.
Format: Hardback
Procurement: Tempe Public Library
Bookmark: Checkout slip.

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6 thoughts on “Review ~ The Turk

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