Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
“Maelzel’s Chess Player” by Edgar Allan Poe
Card picked: Jack of Diamonds
From: Originally published in Southern Literary Messenger in April 1836. I read it online.
Review: Actually not a short story but one of Poe’s essays, published early in his prose career while a staff writer at the Southern Literary Messenger. Better known as the Turk, the mechanical chess player had been an attraction for over 60 years when Johann Maelzel brought it to the US.
Poe begins with an introduction to some other fantastic automatons and computers of the age including the duck of Vaucanson*, and Babbage’s difference engine. The Turk is different from these, he argues, because both are obviously machines and, though Poe doesn’t use these words, obviously programmed to perform specific functions.
He then gives a very short history of the Turk and an account of its current exhibition in Richmond. Proposing “solutions” to the chess player was a bit of a rage at the time. I think that, in light of the phantasmagoria of Poe’s later works and his rather ignominious end, we forget that he was a fairly smart guy. Based on his research and personal observations, he comes to his own conclusions about the Turk. On some counts, he’s even correct and chides previous explanations for being overly complicated when a simpler answer suffices.
Most of Poe’s conclusions I had already read about in Tom Standage’s excellent book about the Turk. Still there were a couple of things that interested me about his essay.
One of Poe’s presumptions was that a pure machine would always win at chess:
A little consideration will convince any one that the difficulty of making a machine beat all games, is not in the least degree greater, as regards the principle of the operations necessary, than that of making it beat a single game.
As is often the case with AI, the intelligence isn’t necessarily smarter than its programmers. It wasn’t until over 100 years later that man created a machine that could outplay the best chess players.
I was also intrigued by Poe’s notion of false machinery — that many aspects of The Turk were meant to be more machine-like than they needed to be to prove that it was a machine. Considering that Poe often played with the notions of false life and false death, this sort of rounds out the paradigm.
* Duck of Vaucanson may be one of my favorite things of all time. Mostly, because I have a theory that ducks are inherently funny. The concept of an 18th century robotic duck is utterly ridiculous in that “of course, this is what humans do when they can” kind of way. There is also some mention of the magician Joseffy creating an improved faux duck that presumably could function on it own without a base.
Is This Your Card?
I had a card trick for the Jack of Diamonds, but then I figured that a video about the Turk would be better. This Turk was rebuilt by magic engineer John Gaughan.