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The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine Hardcover – April 1, 2002

ISBN-13: 978-0802713919 ISBN-10: 0802713912 Edition: First Edition

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company; First Edition edition (April 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802713912
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802713919
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #878,327 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

The Turk was the name given to a chess-playing automaton created by Wolfgang von Kempelen in order to impress the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary. In 1770, von Kempelen demonstrated the Turk and so began a series of performances that would continue for 85 years, throughout Europe and eventually in the United States. Technology correspondent for the Economist and author of The Victorian Internet, Standage details the appearance and seeming construction of the automaton, following its existence and influence up through its destruction in a fire. He also provides a fine description of the fascination with automata and magic that was so prevalent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At the time, no one was able to determine how the Turk performed such feats; a fully operational replica was finally built by a Hollywood stage designer in 1971. Standage concludes this intriguing work by comparing the Turk with developments in computer chess playing in the latter half of the 20th century and also relates it to the broad artificial intelligence field. This book should appeal to a wide range of readers. Hilary Burton, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Livermore, CA
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* It's a shame that most people these days have never heard of Wolfgang von Kempelen's magnificent machine called the Turk, because it really was a marvelous creation. In the middle of the eighteenth century, automatons were all the rage: mechanical ducks and elephants; pictures with moving parts; even human simulacrums that could write, draw, and play musical instruments. And then there was the Turk, an automaton that could, it appeared, play chess--not just move pieces around a board, but also plan and execute strategies and outwit some of Europe's finest chess players. The Turk had a career that lasted more than eight decades: Benjamin Franklin played a match against it; Edgar Allan Poe wrote about it; Charles Babbage, the great-grandfather of the computer, was fascinated by it. But was it a genuine automaton? Or was it, as the Turk's many critics claimed, a hoax, a simple trick dressed up as a scientific wonder? Standage, who is also the author of the delightful Victorian Internet (1998), chronicles the life and times of the Turk, charting its ups and downs, showing the machine's impact on the world (the Turk was, in a way, the inspiration both for the computer and the modern detective story). Saving the best--the truth about the Turk--for last, he keeps us on the edge of our seats, wondering about the secret to this magical device. History as seen from an unusual angle; thrilling stuff. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Customer Reviews

This is a wonderful history of a chess playing automaton.
Rick Mitchell
If you want an entertaining read for a couple evenings, I would highly recommend this book.
L. S. Jorgensen
I'm going to do something daring - review this book before I've even read it!
Keith Halonen

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Robert Morris HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 12, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I forget when or where but, many years ago, I first learned about a chess-playing automaton in the 19th century. In Standage's just published book, I have just learned "the rest of the story." The automaton (named "The Turk") attracted a great deal of attention and generated a great deal of controversy. Benjamin Franklin apparently played a game or two against it. In fact, "The Turk" is reputed to have defeated most of Europe's chess masters during a period which extends from 1770 until 1855. It attracted the attention of countless celebrities (e.g. Napoleon Bonaparte, Edgar Allan Poe, Catherine the Great, and Charles Babbage) and indeed, "The Turk" itself became a celebrity as did its inventor, Wolfgang von Kempelen. Was it truly a technological marvel, not only able to to move chess pieces but to formulate and then follow strategies which prevailed against most of the most skilled players? Or was it a hoax? It would be a disservice both to Standage and to his reader to say much more about this book, except that it is exceptionally well-written and combines the best features of a crackerjack detective story with the skills required of a world-class cultural anthropologist. Standage is a master storyteller; he tells the story of "The Turk" within the context of the Age of Victoria when the Industrial Revolution was well-underway and indeed thriving. Great stuff!
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Fernando Melendez on June 1, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is a delightful book that takes one cultural artifact (a mechanical chess playing machine that looks like a human being and is dressed in oriental opulence, "The Turk") and follows its entire life, from its conceptualization and manufacture to its final demise in a fire in Philadelphia. The period of the Turk's life lasted 85 years, and the people who somehow met and interacted with it were such luminaries Napoleon, and Charles Babbage (inventor of the first computer, sort of), and P. T. Barnum. Edgar Allan Poe started an entire genre (the short detective story) by writing "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," in part inspired by the mental exercise of trying to figure out how The Turk worked. Silas Wier Mitchell, the famous American Civil War physician and neurologist, actually owned The Turk before donating it to the Chinese museum in which it finally perished. Literally hundreds of Europe's intellectuals, and crowned heads, and glitterati of one sort or another played chess against the famous automaton, and usually (but not always) lost the game. And nobody except the operators knew the secret of the machine.
The Turk was the work of Wolfgang Kempelen, an engineer and an aid to the Austro-Hungarian Empress Maria Theresa, who called him to court so that he could explain to her the magic and the related magnetic games that were being demonstrated by a Frenchman by the name of Pelletier in the various courts of Europe. Maria Theresa, being of a scientific mind herself, wanted a respected official to uncover the trickery (if any) involved in Pelletier's performance. Mr.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Steve R on December 20, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Although a familiarity with chess will help, you don't need to be an enthusiast to enjoy this excellent book. Lovers of magic, mysteries, showmanship, mechanical engineering, computers, game theory, psychology, math and history will all find this a fascinating and engrossing story, as will anyone with a smattering of intellectual curiosity. Standege has created a faithful history that is also a page turner. The tale of The Turk is amazing; for its celebrated encounters with formidable intellects ranging from Napolean to Edgar Allan Poe; for its effect on the fortunes and misfortunes of its inventor and promoters; for its role as an inspirer of modern computing; and also for the sad fact that few people today have heard of the automaton that once enthralled and baffled people in dozens of countries through two centuries. Even more compelling is the book's subtext about credulity and the public's ready willingness to believe what what their eyes show them, even when their brains know that it is not possible.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By L. S. Jorgensen on September 7, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I had never heard of the Turk before reading a short blurb elsewhere about this book, nor do I play chess, but I was intrigued enough by what I read to order it and am glad I did. A relatively short book with some occasional (in my opinion) awkward writing, it provides a fascinating look at 18th century automata in general as well as a detailed history of the Turk. What was the Turk? As the title and book jacket indicate, a famous chess playing machine designed as a Turkish man sitting at a cabinet with a chessboard on top. The Turk moved its own pieces, could roll its eyes and shake its head, and, having put its opponent in check, say "Check" (or, later, "Echec", the equivalent in French). It could even detect cheating, at which it would return the offending piece to its previous position and then continue with its own turn, forcing the cheater to lose his. Cheat again and the piece would be confiscated; cheat thrice and the Turk would shake his head and sweep all the pieces to the floor.
Although not unbeatable, the Turk won the great majority of its games and defeated some of the best players of its day. It was shown throughout Europe, made its way to the United States, and was even displayed in Cuba. During its travels it played against Napoleon Bonaparte-according to his valet, Napoleon cheated and was duly caught-and Benjamin Franklin, a rumored sore loser. Edgar Allen Poe saw The Turk play and wrote an exposé as to how he thought it worked. Its fame and indeed its life outlasted that of its creator, who rued that it overshadowed his other considerable achievements, and in all its 85 years of existence its secret remained just that. Was it really a machine? Or was there some trick that allowed human intelligence to guide it? If so, how?
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More About the Author

Tom Standage is digital editor at The Economist, overseeing the magazine's website,, and its smartphone, tablet and e-reader editions. Before that he was business affairs editor, running the back half of the magazine, and he previously served as business editor, technology editor and science correspondent. Tom is also the author of five history books, including "An Edible History of Humanity" (2009), "A History of the World in Six Glasses" (2005), a New York Times bestseller, and "The Victorian Internet" (1998), described by the Wall Street Journal as a "dot-com cult classic". He writes the video-game column for Intelligent Life, The Economist's lifestyle magazine, is a regular commentator on BBC radio, and has written for other publications including the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the New York Times and Wired. He holds a degree in engineering and computer science from Oxford University, and is the least musical member of a musical family. He is married and lives in London with his wife and children, and is currently working on his next book, on the prehistory of social media.