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

Walker & Company 2002  288 pp. 24.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Constructed in 1770, consumed in a fire in 1854, the Turk was the Maltese Falcon of its time; a near-mythical object of veneration, passed from hand to hand over decades, disappearing for twenty years, then reappearing, the subject of magazine articles and books in many languages.  But, while the Maltese Falcon just sat there, the Turk beat the pants off every chess player around.  Imagine someone who was in the room with Napoleon, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Babbage, P. T. Barnum, and Edgar Allan Poe.  The Turk was there, playing chess. 

Automata, devices that simulate animal and human movement, were all the rage in the latter half of the eighteenth century, coinciding with hydraulic theories of animal movement.  Wealthy patrons vied with one another to purchase the latest mechanical duck, flute player, or moving diorama of a great conflagration. 

Maria Teresa of Austria was no exception.  While witnessing the work of the most famous builder of automata, Vaucanson, she listened to a member of her court boast that he could construct a chess playing automaton, given the funds and six months.

The author of this declaration was Wolfgang von Kempelen, born in 1734, and “a strikingly handsome twenty-one-year-old who spoke several languages.”  Sure enough, Kempelen returned to court in 1770 with the Turk, who stunned the audience with his chess playing ability.

Attached at the waist to a wooden cabinet, atop which sat a chessboard, the Turk held a pipe in one hand while the other rested on a cushion.  Kempelen would ceremoniously open each door of the cabinet beneath the Turk, showing both the intricate machinery within, and dispelling the audience’s assumption that the cabinet concealed a human chess player.  Then, winding the contraption with a key, Kempelen caused it to spring to noisy life, with the Turk’s hand grasping a chess piece and moving it from one square to another.  So complete was the illusion that the Turk’s secret survived the Turk himself.

Such was the Turk’s popularity that Kempelen found himself touring Europe with the device, wowing audiences and raking in the cash.  At heart, however, Kempelen was an inventor, not an entrepreneur, and he longed to return to his laboratory to work on other inventions, including a device that simulated human speech.  This device found its way into the Turk, so that when the Turk’s arm would grasp and move a piece into position on the board, the audience could hear him audibly say “check.”  (One of the later witnesses to this marvel was a young Alexander Graham Bell.)

Standage’s book follows the career of the Turk, as it languishes in a storehouse for two decades, is resurrected, sold, dismantled, reassembled, playing to crowds from London to Philadelphia to Havana, and, finally consumed in a fire.  Along the way, he notes the relation of the Turk to both social and scientific phenomena.

“The machine’s debut coincided with the beginnings of the industrial revolution, when machines first began to displace human workers, and the relationship between people and machines was being redefined.  The chess player posed a challenge to anyone who took refuge in the idea that machines might be able to outperform humans physically but could not outdo them mentally.” 

While automata were wildly popular, the Turk distinguished himself from other competitors.  “It was the automaton’s apparent ability to respond to the moves of its human opponent during a game—its interactivity, to use the modern term—that set it apart from previous automata.”

Standage ultimately links the Turk to our contemporary automata, computers.  “Computers are unquestionably the modern descendents of automata: They are “self-moving machines” in the sense that they blindly follow a preordained series of instructions, but rather than moving physical parts, computers move information.  Furthermore, just like automata before them, computers operate at the intersection between science, commerce, and entertainment.”

Standage, author of The Victorian Internet (covering the development of the telegraph), has produced a fascinating account of what for many would be a simply historical curiosity, and linked it not only to a string of famous people, but a series of social and technological developments.  The Turk is well worth checking out.