The Turk
by Tom Standage
Review by Timons Esaias

This is non-fiction, but it has everything needed to appeal to the readers of SF/F, to wit: androids, technology, the question of Man versus Machine, gaming, magic, enough legends and mysteries to count as Alternate History, Napoleon Bonaparte, Edgar Allen Poe, P.T. Barnum, Catherine the Great, Beethoven, Philidor, Handel, fraud, a detective story, patent infringement, Deep Blue, Deeper Blue, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Babbage with his revolutionary mechanical computers. If it were fiction, it would be a steampunk masterpiece.

The author, who also wrote The Victorian Internet, subtitles this book "The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine", and that's a pretty fair description of the subject. What the subtitle doesn't tell you is how fascinating the tale will be. There's the root idea for a new SF story every couple of pages, because this book explores the interesting world of 18th and 19th century automata ("the forgotten ancestors of almost all modern technology"), where the technology of the Industrial Revolution got its initial tryout as an amusement for the Courts of Europe, and as stage show phenomena for the rest of the world.

Standage explains that as clockwork mechanisms became ever more complex and imaginative, jewelers and clock-makers began to invent the equivalent (in their specialties) of Faberge eggs. They created mechanical eagles, mechanical flies, mechanical harpsichord players, writers, draftsmen, and a whole range of mechanical pictures that are the video players of the time before electricity. And one of these artisans, Jacques de Vaucanson, set out to build a complete artificial man. All of these toys were only for the very rich, of course, who gave them as State gifts or used them as show-things at important parties.

It was one of these shows, put on by a visiting Frenchman for the court of Austrian Empress Marie Therese in 1769, that begins the course of events this book is about. The Empress invited an official of the Court, Wolfgang von Kempelen, who was interested in science and technology, to explain to her how the Frenchman's various illusions and machines probably worked. When the show was over he said he thought he could do better, and the Empress told him to prove it. Several months later, von Kempelen produced his answer to the challenge: the Automaton Chess-Player that would fascinate the world for almost a hundred years, spawning dozens of books in its own time, all attempting to penetrate the mystery the "Turk" generated: how did this machine play chess?

The Turk not only played chess, it played it quite well, beating almost everybody almost all of the time. The Turk itself consisted of a large cabinet containing the machinery, with drawers containing the chess pieces and other necessities for the performance, a chess board on top, and sitting on a chair at the back of the cabinet was the upper body of a figure draped in Oriental garb, wearing a turban, holding a long Turkish pipe in one hand and playing the game with the other. The cabinet was opened front and back at the beginning of the performance to prove the absence of a hidden human, and since it rolled around on casters it was clear that no-one could enter from a trap door after the doors were resealed.

Suffice it to say that this book is a quick read, a real page-turner, and much of the fascination is not with the Turk itself, but with its impact on popular imagination. The questions it raised spurred inventors - of everything from power looms to difference engines - to push the envelope of technology. The analysis of it caused Poe to begin the invention of the modern detective novel. The road show inspired P.T. Barnum. And, what is more, it didn't let Napoleon cheat.

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