Rook taken by crook

The chess-playing machine was a fraud, but it led to the computer

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IQ tests and SATs notwithstanding, chess is one of the narrowest and most uncompromising yardsticks of human intelligence. Two people sit at a board. Barring a stalemate, one of them walks away feeling smarter. Chess isn't a particularly kind game, but few can deny that presence of mind, an ability to focus, and raw brainpower are key to excelling at it.

So imagine the shock felt by the brightest men and women of 18th-century Europe when a chess-playing machine – an automaton atop a clockwork-stuffed cabinet, dressed in Near Eastern costume – began touring the Continent's courts and exhibition halls, mopping the floor with nearly all challengers.

At this point in history, cleverly crafted contraptions could play music on a flute; simulate an eating, quacking, swimming bird; and write passages of text with a pen. But – as far as anyone knew – they could not think.

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The chess-playing machine known as the Turk was actually a fraud, with a concealed human operator. Built by Hungarian-born nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen, the hoax was so cleverly perpetrated that its impact was felt across Europe's upper strata of thinkers and rulers, who engaged in a heated debate about the implications of what we now call "artificial intelligence."

And as an icon of the potential of technology, the machine inspired none other than Charles Babbage – intellectual grandfather of the modern computer. He challenged the machine to a game in 1820. "Automaton won in about an hour," he reported. Though he immediately suspected it was somehow under human control, after the encounter, "he started to wonder whether a genuine chess-playing machine could, in fact, be built."

"The Turk," written by Tom Standage, the Economist's technology correspondent, is an absorbing historical yarn set against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution.

The book follows the fraudulent automaton's 85-year career and numerous trips from owner to owner, crossing paths with a wide field of luminaries including Napoleon Bonaparte, Catherine the Great, Ben Franklin, and Edgar Allan Poe.

This clever – sometimes overwritten – book uses the tale of the Turk as a springboard to explore the inner workings of its mechanical contemporaries as well as their creators.

In an age when chess-playing machines regularly devastate even the most skilled human opponents, it's hard to appreciate the famous automaton's impact.

But "The Turk" does a superb job of presenting the story of a remarkable machine and its extraordinary creator as they surfed the rising tide of technology, leaving controversy (and bruised egos) in their wake.

• James Norton is an editor on the Monitor's international desk.

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